Aug. 10, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
Going pro is going great for Irina Falconi, who in a coincidental twist has her former college coach to thank for leaving Georgia Tech early.
She has pro records of 13-2 in singles and 7-3 in doubles this summer since opting out of her final two years of college eligibility. Last week, she improved her world ranking to No. 385 from 532 after reaching the singles semifinals of the ITP Vancouver Open. She also reached the doubles final.
“I can already say that I’m very happy, and proud with how I’ve started,” she said Tuesday from her family home in Jupiter, Fla. “I’m hoping for a wildcard [entry into the U.S. Open].”
Falconi spent most of her sophomore season as the nation’s No. 1-ranked college player before falling in the NCAA singles draw to the eventual champion Chelsey Gullickson (from Georgia in a match played at Georgia). She was 70-15 in two seasons on The Flats, 40-3 last school season.
“At the very end of the college season, I felt that I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said. “I definitely feel a lot freer playing on the pro circuit. I think too many matches consecutively, and I really hadn’t got a day or two off [in college]. It’s not that I’m playing better, just fresher.”
Tech coach Bryan Shelton had a role in this. When Falconi went home at the end of the school year after helping the Yellow Jackets pull several upsets on the way to winning the ACC team title, she took his advice. Ultimately, it led to the decision to turn professional.
“I didn’t play for 10 days. I was under coach Shelton’s orders to not touch a racquet,” she said. “I had a lot of time to really look at what I wanted to do. I was missing tennis more than I thought I would. I knew that education was always going to be there, and wanted to make sure all my ducks were in a row.”
The decision-making process was complex, but the sum of it was that Falconi decided she was ready to make tennis more than a big part of her life; she was ready to make it the biggest part of her life. It is not a sport dominated by elders.
“You’re only 20 once,” she said. “I talked to my parents, and [Shelton] was very supportive, and the best advice he gave was if you’re ready there’s no one that’s going to stop you. I try to talk to him every day. We miss each other sometimes, so we shoot texts. It’s always nice to know that I have people back home thinking about me, especially someone like Bryan Shelton. He means the world to me.”
Falconi has played singles in three pro tournaments this summer, and three times in doubles although not always in the same tournaments at the same times. She won the singles title earlier this summer in Atlanta’s Norman Wilkerson Open.
The draw in that tournament was not as impressive, however, as at Vancouver. Falconi rolled through three qualifying matches to gain entry into the main field of 32. There, she beat the Nos. 249- and 121-ranked players in the world. She won the first set in her semifinal against eventual champion Jelena Dokic before dropping the final two sets. Dokic was No. 4 in the world a few years ago.
Although her parents have not seen her play as a pro, if Falconi gains a berth to the U.S. Open, played in their hometown of New York City, it’s a good bet they’ll make the trip.
“They have three cats to take care of, and bills to pay,” she said. “It’s expensive for me to travel alone. I haven’t gotten to the position where I can travel with my posse yet.”
Falconi laughed when she said that.
There are some distinct differences between college and pro tennis, of course, and they go beyond the fact she has to make her own travel plans. Believe it or not, Falconi may be playing a little less now.
“Rest is one of the biggest things,” she said. “I shut it down when I’m traveling and I can’t get on a court. [Monday] I didn’t play because I was on a plane. I got home at 8. In school, academics take a toll. Here, travel takes a toll. It’s how you handle it. Organizing time has been one of my biggest strengths.”