Jan. 23, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Playing at No. 1 means you are the tone-setter for your team.
You get other teams’ best players every night and have to be at your best or risk humiliation at the forehand and backhand of a world-class player.
It’s not a pursuit for everyone. Jillian O’Neill is not everyone.
The senior from Montreal, Canada knows what’s expected and is unafraid to go after it.
“It’s definitely exciting. I have to be ready because all the team’s No. 1’s are definitely very good,” said O’Neill, who was the ACC Women’s Tennis Player of the Week last week (she was jazzed to learn that Tech’s Sasha Goodlett was named ACC Women’s Basketball Player of the Week that same week). “I have to come out and I have to be 100 percent prepared but it’s a great challenge and I look forward to it. It’s fun to go out and know you’re going to have a really competitive match in front of you.”
O’Neill’s stepping up to the challenge doesn’t surprise Women’s Tennis Head Coach Bryan Shelton.
“She’s one of those girls that you could almost describe as a game day player. She plays her best in matches,” said Shelton. “She’s elevated her practices, especially off-court where she’s pushing her body and working harder to get fitter and stronger. That wasn’t always the case. There’s something special about her that when the match is on the line and she’s out there playing she can raise her intensity to another level and can compete with the best players in the nation. She’s just that good.”
She showed that Jan. 14-16 at the Michigan Invitational, Tech’s season opener. O’Neill won two of her three singles matches, including knocking off University of Washington senior Denise Dy, the No. 10 player in the country, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (4). That match was big for O’Neill’s confidence.
“It definitely showed me that I can play at that high of a level,” she said. “[Dy] is ranked very high in the country. So it’s always a confidence boost for me to know that I can keep up with the best, mentally, physically stay there.”
Shelton was excited to see that light go on.
“I think that she has a lot of confidence in what she can do on the court,” said Shelton. “She knows that she can hurt people. She’s definitely got some weapons out there on the court that other people have to be aware of.
“The good thing about her is now her weaknesses aren’t so glaring,” he added. “They don’t really stand out so it’s hard to see. Where as before a player might think that she could outlast her or wear her down, she’s now more physically fit and so she’s able to go the distance. A good example of that was when she played [Dy] and beat her 7-6 in the third, in a three-hour-plus match. That was a huge confidence boost for her, something that told her, ‘I can go out there and I can play explosively and I can get the job done quickly or I can go out there and, if I need to, I can stay out there for three hours and do the work and I can still get the job done in the end.’ So I think that was a huge boost for her confidence.”
O’Neill, who is ranked No. 45, dropped her next two singles matches — 4-6, 4-6 to No. 36 Emina Bektas of Michigan, the day after the Dy match, then, this past Saturday, 6-2, 0-6, 3-6 against No. 2 Chelsey Gullickson of Georgia — but proved she can play with anyone. She also showed she won’t let a loss linger, as the day after the loss to Gullickson, part of a heart-breaking 4-3 team loss, she bounced back, quickly disposing of Memphis’ Courtney Collins, 6-2, 6-1, spearheading Tech’s 6-1 win.
Her growth has transferred over to the doubles court.
After forming a superb partnership with Caroline Lilley last season, O’Neill has been paired with sophomore transfer Alex Anghelescu and the two have shown spectacular results. They are 4-0 as a team and over the weekend knocked off Georgia’s second-ranked tandem of Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist (8-5), then, the next day, knocked off Memphis’ top team of Alyssa Hibbard and Tiffany Welcher, the nation’s 41st-ranked team, (8-4).
“We play different game styles but we mesh really well together,” said O’Neill. “I have a big game, Alex definitely has a big game, too, and she has a lot of feel. Together I feel like we can throw our opponents off with all the different angles we can throw in. We have a complete game together. There aren’t any holes that they can exploit on us. We’re a pretty complete team together.”
Thus far on the season, the Yellow Jackets have won the Doubles point in every match and have won 13 of the 16 matches played. (By the way, Lilley is doing quite well with her new partner, freshman Jasmine Minor, as they are the nation’s 33rd-ranked team.).
Led by O’Neill, the Jackets are looking for bigger things, starting this weekend at the Moore Center, when they take on Georgia State on Friday (a 2 p.m. start), and either South Carolina or William & Mary on Saturday (time TBA), then Princeton the following Friday (another 2 p.m. start). Those matches lead into the ITA National Team Indoors held Feb. 10-13, in Charlottesville, Va.
But they’re not looking that far ahead. For now, improvement on a day-to-day basis is the name of the game.
“We put in a lot of work fitness-wise last semester,” she said. “I feel you can definitely see that it paid off for all the girls on the team. Hopefully we’ll all keep improving and getting better all season long.”
O’Neill knows it starts at the top and likes knowing that means her.