May 5, 2004
At 5-3, senior Maria Nieto doesn’t look like your typical athlete, but then again, the 21-year old isn’t your normal athlete either. Best known for her spirit on the court, the Madrid, Spain, native is a key contributor to the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team and one of the top tennis players in the Atlantic Coast Conference that is looking to conclude her career at Georgia Tech with an NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I was injured last year after suffering a pretty bad ankle sprain at the end of the season and didn’t get to play in the NCAA Tournament,” said Nieto. “Since it would probably be one of my last tennis matches ever, I think that making the tournament, and perhaps even making it to the Sweet 16, would be the best way to finish my career.”
After playing in just six singles matches last spring, the transfer from Florida Gulf Coast University has been a key contributor to the Yellow Jackets’ success this year, as she is second on the team with a .667 winning percentage in dual matches, posting a 12-6 record in the Nos. 5 and 6 singles positions in 2004.
“Although I practiced a bit this summer, I think the thing that helped me the most was teaching others to play,” said Nieto. “To watch little kids get excited about hitting three balls in a row made me realize my own impatience and made me work hard at correcting that part of my game.”
Because Nieto figured that she would never play professional tennis, she chose to further her education after high school. She applied for, and was accepted to, school in Spain and planned on attending before learning that there was an opportunity to keep playing tennis if she attended college in the United States. After contacting someone that helped international students obtain scholarships here, she was put in contact with Fred Drilling, head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Nieto played in just four singles and four doubles matches in her first year at Florida Gulf Coast, but then moved to the top singles slot her sophomore year, finishing with a 9-13 record. She concluded her second season ranked 12th in the nation in singles play and 14th in doubles with partner Eveline Folkerts in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association NAIA poll at the end of the 2002 season.
“While Florida Gulf Coast was a good program, it was not as good as the one at Georgia Tech,” said Nieto. “When I was 18, I had a chance to visit the school, and really liked it, liked Atlanta, and liked the fact that the school was actually inside the city. I had the opportunity to meet (Georgia Tech women’s tennis head coach) Shelton and he told me more about the program. I really liked what they had here for me, I knew that the tennis was great, and that the school itself was very good.”
Following her sophomore season, Nieto took a chance on Tech. Although she played singles in only six dual matches her first year as a Yellow Jacket, she contributed with her outstanding doubles play, teaming with Catherine Gunn to form the nation’s 39th-ranked doubles tandem in the nation. As a team, Nieto and Gunn held a 15-7 overall record and stood at 8-3 in dual matches.
“I wasn’t expecting to play my first year here,” said Nieto. “I started to play with Catherine midway through the year and we were pretty good at doubles together, so that was very good for me. It really made me realize that I could keep playing if I worked hard.”
Prior to this season, Shelton stated that Nieto’s best assets were her addition to the team chemistry, her quiet confidence on the court, and her team spirit, and those things haven’t changed after her stellar senior year.
“Maria definitely met our expectations and even exceeded them this year,” Shelton stated. “We knew that she would have a vital role on the team and be one of our emotional leaders, but she really brought a leadership to the team that enabled us to accomplish goals that we set for ourselves as a team. She came through for us in so many matches, whether by clinching the doubles points in matches early in the season, or gutting out singles matches for us. She is certainly a spark for our team, and everywhere that Maria went, our team went too.”
Upon receiving a degree in management with a concentration on finance in December, Nieto is planning on returning to Madrid to further her education, studying for a master’s degree in finance. She wants to teach and play tennis regularly in leagues at her country club, and also hopes to start playing basketball and golf again, two of her favorite sports from high school, once she returns home…just further proof that Maria Nieto is a “big thing” in a very small package.