By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There isn’t much that can stop Kenya Jones when she’s on tennis.
The Yellow Jackets’ sophomore is half of the nation’s No. 3 doubles team — with senior Paige Hourigan — and was part of 30 doubles wins in her debut season, fourth best all-time (tied with Kendal Woodard). Flying solo, she ranked in the top-10 in program history with 23 dual wins (seventh) and 32 total wins (tied for 10th with Kelly Anderson).
And that was before a summer of improvements.
“I think she’s better this year,” said head coach Rodney Harmon. “I think she’s serving better than she did last year. I think her volleys have made a major improvement and she’s also added variety to her game. She’s added the ability to put more shape on the ball, more spin on the ball, in addition to hitting the ball hard. She keeps adding and building her game. The way she’s going, she’s going to be playing near the top of our lineup for the rest of her time here at Tech. She’s a top player and we expect so much from her.”
The unexpected appears to be the only thing that can even slow Jones down and, in a scary twist, a couple of weeks ago, the unexpected actually did.
The flu, which victimized Jones as part of its invading Atlanta, took a major turn for the worse, morphing into pneumonia.
“I didn’t practice the week before ITA Kick-Off Weekend, that Wednesday, because I was complaining about back pain but it was just from me serving,” she recalled. “Then, later on that night, I had pain when I was breathing.”
Talking with her trainer, they quickly realized that this was more than back spasms.
Jones shut down and missed ITA Kick-Off Weekend, in which Georgia Tech beat both South Florida and Denver, 4-1, with Hourigan playing No. 3 doubles with Nadia Gizdova.
Missing being able to contribute to the team was painful emotionally. Missing being able to practice and trying to get back to the level at which she had been playing really hurt physically.
“My first day back at practice I was dying after doing a drill for like 10 minutes,” she remembered. “(The coaches) were like, ‘You good?’ I was like, ‘Yeah. I’m pushing.’ It was a hard transition but I’m glad that we caught it when we did.”
“She was out for over a week. The biggest thing when you’re out is not your tennis, but your fitness,” said Harmon. “Your fitness gets away from you. Your endurance gets away from you. So that’s taken a little time to get back but she’s a great fighter.”
Hourigan admitted playing without Jones was something of a fight for her, as well.
“It was difficult, because, obviously, we had to switch teams and I played with Nadia (Gizdova) at three, which is weird because I’ve never played there before,” she said, with a laugh. “It was fun playing with Nadia but I’m happy that my doubles partner’s back.”
Happiness abounded with Jones back this past weekend at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships in Madison, Wisc. Tech went 2-1, taking out No. 10 Michigan, 4-2, then, after dropping a heart-breaking, 4-2 decision to No. 6 Pepperdine, the eventual tournament runner-up, the Jackets left on a high, beating No. 3 Florida, 4-2. It was the program’s first win over the Gators in four tries, the last two losses coming in the 2013 and 2015 NCAA Tournament — both matches held in Gainesville.
Jones insisted that bouncing back from Pepperdine was easy.
“It wasn’t too hard the next day to fight, especially since we were playing a team we had never beaten before. That, by itself, kind of fired us up,” Jones said. “Of course, people who had lost the day before were really fired up. I know Paige and I went out really focusing on doubles because we didn’t play that well the day before. You want to redeem yourself. I felt like we worked through our problems individually and, as a team, it all came together in the end.”
Hourigan feels she and Jones will get even more together and reach even higher ground than last year, when they reached the NCAA Tournament.
“I think our ranking starts off pretty good, us being No. 3, but I feel like we’re not playing our best tennis right now,” she said. “She was sick for a little bit, so this weekend was our first weekend back playing together. It was a little bit iffy, but the (Florida) match got a lot better. So I’m excited. We just need to work a little bit harder in practice and get better with a few of the shots that we’re making.”
Harmon feels practicing harder but not necessarily practicing harder shots is the key.
“They can hit the ball so hard and they can hit some pretty spectacular shots but at times that’s not what’s necessary,” he said. “You need to play good, solid, ‘meat-and-potatoes.’ Make returns, make first serves, make the approach at the right times, make the opponent touch the ball. When they did that they played quite well. We’re hoping they’ll get back to that and it’ll be good.”
It’s hard to imagine Hourigan and Jones playing better. Their 6-4 loss to Pepperdine — the first match in which the Jackets did not take the doubles point — was only their fifth, as they’re 8-3 this year (with one unfinished) after going 24-2 (11-1 in ACC play last season). There would be no losing streak, as, on Sunday, they dominated Florida’s No. 1 team of Anna Danilina and Victoria Emma, 6-2, to clinch the doubles point.
In singles play, Jones beat Peggy Porter, 6-2, 6-2, at 5 on Sunday to complete a perfect weekend. She played at 6 the first two days, dropping one set — the second against Pepperdine’s Adrijana Lekaj, 2-6, before trouncing Lekaj, 6-1, in the third to win the match and pull Tech to within 3-2.
“I was relieved that I was back on the court,” she said. “Honestly, just playing beside my teammates was a good feeling, knowing that I could contribute in some way.”
Jones shouldn’t get used to playing at No. 5 or 6.
“She’ll be moving up in our lineup, back in the normal places she plays in,” said Harmon. “The thing is, there’s no break because whoever goes down to No. 6 is really good. Nami (Otsuka) is sitting there right now and she was (22-1) at 5 last year. All the top teams have really good players top to bottom. As I told my team, 6 counts as much as 1, counts as much as 2, counts as much as 5. They all count the same. So we just have to put a great performance in on every spot and give ourselves a chance.”
They’ll need balanced production as there’s no break in the schedule. That’s fine. Jones looks forward to the gauntlet ahead and can’t wait for the top-10 showdown with No. 5 Georgia, which is next Friday at Byers Tennis Complex on Feb. 23. She was instrumental in Tech’s 4-3 win last season, as she and Hourigan beat Caroline Brinson and Kennedy Shaffer, 6-4, then, playing at 4, topped No. 44 Brinson, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. The win snapped a six-game series losing streak.
“‘T.H.W.G.’ We always want to beat Georgia” she said. “Last year we went to Athens and beat them, so of course this year we’re really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a tough match but that’s what we look forward to.”
After Georgia comes the ACC, which, including the Jackets, boasts three teams in the top 10 and five in the top 25.
“I chose this conference and I chose this school because I want to play a competitive team,” she said. “I want to be pushed every match. I want to go out on the court and know that ‘I have to give it my all or I might come out with an ‘L’ today.’ That’s a good feeling and I’m excited for season.”