May 11, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
ATLANTA – If the traits listed below are not the first you notice about Irina Falconi, you’re distracted, a poor observer of human nature, and you need to sit closer when the Yellow Jackets Friday and Saturday play host to first- and second-round matches in the NCAA Tournament.
No matter your observational powers, you’re forgiven for not connecting her with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar even if they were nearly neighbors but for about 43 years between their births.
Falconi’s confident . . . in control . . . composed, and all ridiculously so for someone her age. Good grief; she traveled to Mexico a few years ago to play a little amateur tennis – by herself.
No wonder she won a third-set tiebreaker two weeks ago to clinch Georgia Tech’s upset of No. 1 North Carolina in the ACC Championship match.
One does not get to be seeded No. 1 in the NCAA singles championships, which will be May 26-31 at the University of Georgia, without superior talent. Yet Falconi (37-2) is past the point where talent alone wins out. Skill must be pollinated by brainpower, and there the Tech record holder for singles wins in a dual-match season (26) is on point.
Doubt creeps in, sure. She shuts it out. Opponents change strategy mid-match. So does she.
Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. In a sport where most players share common backgrounds, many inclusive of country clubs, Falconi stands out even as the shortest player (5-feet-4) at Tech.
Her incubator was the same tip of far northern Manhattan where basketball legend Lew Alcindor grew up before coming to be known as Abdul-Jabbar.
In a tiny apartment in a somewhat forgotten part of New York City that was rural until well into the 20th century, centered in neighborhoods long populated by Irish and Jewish residents before an influx of Hispanic inhabitants in the 1970s and `80s, a family of four wedged itself.
“I lived in Inwood (Hill) Park, and they had 10 public courts across the street,” Falconi said. “My older sister played. My dad taught her.”
Carlos Falconi was a professional soccer player in Ecuador. Then, he taught himself to play tennis. Then, he taught his daughter. Then, he taught his second daughter, and Irina Falconi one day began rolling through the junior ranks like a tank through twigs. All she’s done lately is win 20 straight matches.
Eventually, a move had to be made in the best interests of Irina and her family. So, a 14-year-old girl and her family took off for Jupiter.
Florida, that is. A few miles north of West Palm Beach, an area where tennis is a big deal, and the search for parking is not. There are a few country clubs around there.
“My dad wanted a better life. We had been in an apartment, and the idea of having a house and not having to look for parking for three hours in the middle of the night appealed to him,” Falconi said. “And obviously I was pretty successful with my tennis career and he wanted to expand that. Florida is like the tennis capital of the world.”
Time to wrap up.
You’re going to have to check back in EVERY DAY to RamblinWreck.com to find out which coaches Falconi hooked up with in Florida, how hard Tech coach Bryan Shelton recruited her (or not), her take on the pro tour (which she’s played), how the big family move south came to pass, and whether a competitor utterly capable of blocking out distractions cottons to the team concept.
OK, a tease on that one, with just enough unknown blended in to make you wonder all the more: “We don’t ever talk about it. We all feel it. When we go out there, you just know that the whole team is hurting a little. But . . . we believe in each other. The bonds created in team tennis are just amazing.”
There is almost no telling when the next Falconi installment will emerge.