May 14, 2010
By Matt Winklejohn
Written words and numbers can go only so far in illuminating the benefit attached to Amanda McDowell’s return Friday afternoon to the active ranks of Georgia Tech student-athletes.
And never mind the sense of justice served; there’s no quantifying that.
An entry in any argument about the best women’s tennis player in Tech history, McDowell’s made an odd story of herself over recent months, and not of her own volition. Her senior season has been all but scuttled by injury.
So when she took the court for the first time competitively since re-wrenching her back in February, and teamed with Lynn Blau to win at No. 2 doubles and help the No. 14 Yellow Jackets clinch the doubles point against Austin Peay (18-4) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it was a fairly large deal. That win nosed Tech’s 4-0 win over the Lady Govs off the launching pad.
Oddly enough, if she wakes up Saturday and her back is not abundantly sore – not a given – a circle will close. Tech will face Ole Miss at 1 p.m. in the second round for a berth in the Sweet 16 next week at Georgia.
This back business began about this time last year, against . . . Ole Miss.
So yeah, having been on the wrong end of a script – what writer would jam up a member of the 2007 NCAA championship team who went on to win the 2008 NCAA singles title with an injury that nobody has completely diagnosed? – Friday might not have carried the electro-buzz of prior moments in McDowell’s career, but the former Marist star was a tad tickled after she and Blau won 8-3.
“It was [a big deal] for me,” McDowell said. “It’s been hard for me because it’s my senior year and how much I’ve had to sit out. This is definitely not how I wanted to end my college career, and it felt so awesome to be out there in one of the last home matches of the year.”
A collision of emotions left McDowell out of the public loop recently. Through intermediaries, she denied requests in past months to be interviewed for stories about her unusual circumstances. It was too difficult, too uncomfortable. It was… crappy.
So as the Jackets were toiling on an unusually hot mid-May afternoon at the Bill Moore Tennis Center a few weeks after McDowell took an injection in her back that she said combined cortisone with “some other stuff,” there were more, “Let’s go, A-M,” cheers than all others combined.
Time is short for McDowell, which might explain why she noticed where once she wouldn’t have.
“I was aware of it,” she said. “I felt good. People have been wondering because I was out so long so I think people were excited to see me out there, and it felt good to have that support. “
This is more than a feel-good story.
Even with Tech’s neo-Rocky rally to win the ACC title a couple weeks ago after an injury-plagued 5-5 regular season, Shelton’s squad is not an overdog in the big picture.
McDowell, who estimates she’s at 75 percent after barely hitting a tennis ball for a couple winter/early spring months, offers a big lift. The Jackets (19-9) have struggled at times to win the doubles point, which requires winning two of three doubles matches.
“Against the tough, tough opponents, I know we’ve lost more doubles than we’ve won this season,” said coach Bryan Shelton. “For her to help us there is huge. To win the match after losing the doubles point is hard; we’ve don’t it, but it’s not easy.
“We’re so tough in certain spots in our lineup that it applies a lot of pressure on our opponents. I don’t know that we’ve lost any matches when we’ve won the doubles point.”
Tech eventually rolled on a day when depth was key; the Jackets cemented the win as Elizabeth Kilborn, Blau (Tech’s “pressure points” beyond Falconi) and Hillary Davis won matches at – get this – Nos. 5, 4 and 6 singles. Tech’s 4, 5 and 6 players out-gamed Austin Peay 36-6.
The No. 1-ranked player in the nation, Tech’s Irina Falconi, was scuffling at No. 1, about to go down 4-2 in the second set after rallying from a 2-1 deficit to win the first.
Kilborn and Blau, who like Falconi were undefeated in the ACC tournament, are rolling, and the presence of McDowell in doubles affords more margin for error. If she keeps improving, perhaps there will be more benefit. Down 0-40 while serving in the 10th game, McDowell served for five straight points to win that game and then she and Blau broke serve to clinch the doubles point.
“Honestly, with Amanda we’re taking it day by day and seeing how she feels,” Shelton said. “It was a huge boost to have her out there in doubles. She was excited, her teammates were excited, and I was certainly excited.
“[Saturday] . . . hopefully, we can advance. That’s the goal, just to advance, beat Ole Miss and give ourselves a chance the following week in Athens. From there, hopefully we can play her in singles.”