Sept. 7, 2010
By Jon Cooper
There’s no room for indecision in tennis.
Former Georgia Tech standout Irina Falconi understands that as well as anyone. That’s why when a decision needed to be made about staying in college to play another year or going pro, she acted quickly and decisively.
So far, it also appears correctly.
Georgia Tech Women’s Tennis Coach Bryan Shelton certainly thinks so.
“It was one of those things where if she wasn’t so dominant on the college level I’d say, `You have to win here first. If you can do that then you can start thinking about the next level,'” he said. “She dominated last year. So I think she was ready.”
Falconi proved how ready in late August on the courts of the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, in Flushing, N.Y. Those were the same courts where a year earlier, she showed that she wasn’t ready and needed more seasoning before trying to trade volleys with the world’s best players.
After a freshman season that saw Falconi earn All-America and All-ACC status, she attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open. She was dismissed, 6-4, 6-1 by University of Florida Freshman Lauren Embree.
Falconi came back to The Flats for her sophomore year wiser and more determined to get back to Flushing. She put together a 40-3 record (a school-record .930 winning percentage), a 26-1 mark in the dual-match season, a 30-3 record against ranked opponents (she’d been 18-11 as a freshman), and led the Yellow Jackets to the ACC Championship.
After winning a U.S.T.A. Pro Circuit event in Atlanta and reaching the semifinals in a similar event in Vancouver, Falconi knew she was a completely different and more complete player heading into 2010 Open qualifiers.
“I definitely went in there without the `deer in the headlights’ feeling that I had last year,” she said. “Last year was my first grand slam, first big tournament ever. I think the second time around, I was able to learn from that experience and use it to my advantage.”
She dropped one set in three matches, running over Germany’s Mona Barthel, 6-0, 6-2, in her opening match, spotting Russia’s Anastasia Pivovarova a set (7-6) before taking care of the next two, 6-2, 6-2 and finally, crushing Canada’s Stephanie Dubois, 6-3, 6-1.
Falconi was in, but her journey would not last long, as Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, the 19th-ranked player in the world and a U.S. Open quarterfinalist the last two years, took Falconi out, 6-2, 6-1.
Typically, she didn’t get down about the loss.
“She’s probably the most positive person — not young-adult, not tennis player — but the most positive person I’ve ever come in contact with,” said Shelton. “I’ve seen the girl sick as a dog and I’ll ask her how she’s doing and she’ll tell me she’s great. Nothing negative ever comes out of her mouth.
“She’s confident that she can be one of the top 100 players in the world, she’s confident that she can make a career out of tennis, and I believe in her. I believe she will,” he added. “She’s the only American female player that made it through the qualifying draw this year at the U.S. Open. That speaks volumes to what she is as a tennis player and what she is as a person. I think she’s just scratched the surface of what she can do in the game and I think nothing but good things are ahead for her, especially with her attitude.”
Falconi believes that come next August, she’ll view the 2010 U.S. Open as being as big a stepping stone in her 2011 progression as 2009’s was in her leap in 2010.
“Absolutely,” she said. “It was essential to my growth and development as a player at this level for sure.”
Until then, she’ll continue to work as hard as ever — harder and longer, actually.
“We used to train two to three hours a day. Now it’s more like three and a half to four hours a day,” Falconi pointed out. “It’s not a matter of balancing academics anymore, but balancing fitness and tennis, instead of school, which is huge.”
But she admitted there are things she misses about Georgia Tech.
“I miss my girls a ton and Coach Shelton. I really miss him,” she said, adding with a laugh, “The homework and the schooling, not so much.”
She’s got a different kind of homework now, and, how well she does it in preparing for some smaller upcoming matches will determine whether she qualifies for the Australian Open in January.
“I’m only 70 spots away from qualifying for the Australian Open,” she said. “So I’m excited about that. It’s definitely not a far-fetched goal.”
Shelton feels it’s not far-fetched to call Falconi a role model for his program.
“Ultimately I’d love to see [Georgia Tech] be kind of a little bit of a breeding ground for players to go onto that next level and be successful,” he said. “I think that at 21, 22 years old, you can still go out there and play professionally after you finish college and have some success. Hopefully she’s going to be an example for others to follow over the next five to ten years.”