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Eyes Wide Open

Sept. 8, 2009

by Jon Cooper, OSR Contributing Editor
OSR Sting EXTRA

Irina Falconi is not scared of “the sophomore jinx.” In fact, there’s not much that can spook her when it comes to tennis.

The second-year Georgia Tech netter became even braver this summer after playing in the 2009 U.S. Open qualifiers.

“The coolest thing I realized was the fact that I wasn’t like a deer in the headlights seeing all these players,” said the 19-year-old native of Jupiter, Fla., for whom the experience was something of a homecoming — she was introduced to tennis at age four by her father, while the family lived in Manhattan. “It was more like, ‘Oh, look, there’s Dinara Safina. Oh, look, there’s Rafael Nadal.’

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, can I get his autograph?’ Being able to talk with Ana Ivanovich and Dinara Safina, seeing Jelena Jankovic right behind me was just a wonderful experience. Just being able top play at that level, was a real eye-opener for me.”

Having her eyes opened was a change for Falconi, who as a freshman was usually the one garnering attention.

She won 30 singles matches in ’09 and was named All-America and All-ACC. She won 18 of 29 matches against ranked opponents and toppled the then-No. 1 player, Northwestern’s Maria Mosolova. Falconi ranked as high as No. 5 in dual-match play, and won nine of her last 12 matches in helping Tech get to the NCAA Round of 16 for the fifth straight season.

Her horizons were broadened by women’s tennis coach Bryan Shelton when he teamed her with Amanda McDowell, the ’08 ITA National Player of the Year, and NCAA Singles Champion. Last fall, they won the ITA All-Americans doubles title, defeating the Nos. 1, 3, 8, 17, 21 and 26 duos along the way.

“We both brought different things to the table when we were playing together,” recalled McDowell, the lone senior on this year’s squad. “We were able to really feed off of each other. She brought what I needed in a doubles partner and I sort of calmed her down at times when she needed to be calmed down.”

McDowell also was able to prepare Falconi for the experience of playing in the U.S. Open, as she had traveled that road in `08.

“When I found out [she was playing in the Open] she was one of the first people that I told and she was so happy for me,” Falconi recalled. “She was just so great, telling me how to handle things, what it was going to be like. It was great for her to be like a coach with me and just kind of get me through what was going to happen.”

Despite a straight-sets loss to University of Florida freshman Lauren Embree (6-4, 6-1), Shelton believes good things are going to happen to Falconi on The Flats as she springboards off her summer, which saw her win USTA Pro Circuit singles titles in an Atlanta tournament and singles and doubles titles at the Heartland Clinic USTA Women’s Classic at the Noyes Tennis Center inSt. Joseph, Mo.

“Irina really made a commitment to getting better this past summer,” he said. “She worked hard on her fitness and went out to play the tournaments and she didn’t just play the tournaments. She went out there and won a lot of matches. I think that with her improved fitness and getting in much better physical condition it’s just given her a lot of confidence. Now when she’s in a tight match or she gets down in a match she’s no longer panicking and she is much more mentally tough.”

Falconi agreed. “Two of the main things that were definitely priority were fitness and confidence,” she said. “Put those two together and it’s just a dynamic duo. [Freshman year] was very stressful. “This year, I know what college tennis is all about. It should be fun. We’re all excited about this year. Individually, it’s going to be no pressure. It’s going to be ‘Go out there and do what you do, do what you can do and just try your best.'”

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