Nov. 16, 2010
By Jon Cooper
When Caroline Lilley gets set in her ways, there’s not much chance of changing her mind.
For example, she has it in her mind that the best way to play tennis is with an attack-first philosophy aimed to put opponents on the defensive and keep them there.
“It’s a game style girls don’t like and it’s a game style girls don’t see,” she said. “More than anything it’s just recognizing my strengths. I’m kind of late to playing tennis. I haven’t been playing very long and I’ve always felt most comfortable at net, which isn’t very common for girls or very common for tennis players these days. I’m just more of a natural volleyer and I like to come in.”
“She plays a different style, she plays a very attacking, aggressive game,” said Head Coach Bryan Shelton. “She likes to serve and volley, which is kind of a lost art these days. I think she’s trying to bring it back. She likes to get to the net. I call her the ‘Volley Animal,’ because she loves to get to the net and volley and finish.
“There aren’t a lot of players that do that,” he continued. “I think she sees that as her little niche into the competitive world of tennis and sees that that can be a way that she can differentiate herself from the pack.”
Lilley’s fast-track to competitive tennis certainly differentiates herself from the pack.
“I had picked up a racket and knew how to play growing up, but 17 was when I really started to get serious about the game,” said the junior and native of Portland, Ore., who transferred to Georgia Tech after two years at Kentucky. “Before that I was a basketball player.”
The mental challenge of the game was what convinced her to choose going to the net instead of to the hoop.
“Tennis is a game where you can control some things and you don’t have control over others but you always have control over your attitude and how you act,” she said. “One thing that tennis requires out of players is that mental strength and that ability to persevere and be resilient. It’s grueling to be out there by yourself and maybe your coach has given you a game plan but he can’t do it for you. You don’t have teammates on the court who can help you out. You’re there, alone, playing against someone and hope it’s not yourself.”
Lilley hasn’t beaten herself much and has been quite successful collegiately.
As a freshman at Kentucky in 2009, she secured a team-high 25 wins in singles competition and, in doubles, reached the round of 16 at the NCAA Championships with partner Carolina Escamilla, upsetting the No. 3 team in the nation on the way.
She played solidly as a sophomore after moving up to No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles, although that’s not necessarily reflected in the win-loss column.
Switching from the SEC to the ACC changed little success-wise in singles or doubles for Lilley. The highlight of the fall season was reaching the singles final in the consolation bracket at the USTA/ITA Southeast Regional, where she faced teammate Christina Ngo, (Ngo won the match, 6-2, 7-6(1)).
Despite losing, 6-2, 7-6(1), the match was still a most unique experience.
“That was just one of those things that, ‘This is cool. We’re the only ones left. We’re the only ones left in the building,'” she recalled, with a laugh. “Our coaches are sitting there and it’s just me and Christina fighting. That was just a good experience, seeing as I’ve never had to play a teammate in a competitive situation like that. I think we both grew a lot in that match.”
In doubles, she and partner Sasha Krupina grew into monsters as the fall went on. They debuted going 2-0 in the Georgia Tech Invitational, reached the round of 16 in the ITA All-American Championships, and concluded by winning a share of the title in the UNC Invitational.
With the fall over and the spring season on the horizon, it’s time to make some technical improvements on her game under Shelton’s supervision.
“It takes a while to develop but I’m definitely in the right program to develop a game style that’s centered around coming in and serving and volleying and chipping and charging,” she said. “Coach knows that game so well because he played that game that he can develop that game.”
Shelton believes now that Lilley is settled in her environment at Tech, she’ll be even more unsettling for opponents on the court.
“Emotionally, she’d kind of been on a little bit of a roller coaster ride since she arrived,” he said. “Now I think she’s in a better way, mentally and has a little bit more confidence in what she can do on the court and understands the way she should be playing.
“I think she’s starting to have more fun out there,” he added. “You want to enjoy the game, you want to go out there and compete hard, you want to be able to put it on the line every time you go take the court, and, win or lose, you feel good about it because you were able to put it out there and put it on the line. If she’s able to do that continuously throughout the season, she’ll find that she’ll be the winner more times than not.”