Sept. 19, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
As the season begins today in the Yellow Jacket Invitational at the Ken Byers Tennis Center, the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team will look quite different as half the eight student-athletes expected to play for the Jackets will be freshman.
They’ll be more worldly, too.
For head coach Rodney Harmon, there is and has been much to learn about new players, their strengths and weaknesses, how they work, and how they respond to coaching and adversity.
Even with all that work and more to be done, Harmon has less adversity.
In preparing for doubles and singles matches against LSU, Georgia State and N.C. State, he has the luxury of nine players on a roster that for most of the last fall and spring seasons was so thin that, “One injury, and we were dead in the water.”
Freshmen Johnnise Renaud (Miami), Paige Hourigan (New Zealand), Alexis Prokopuik (British Columbia) and Vooha Vellanki (Norcross) have afforded luxuries that last year Harmon could only dream of having.
For example, the Jackets are deep enough to leave junior team captain Megan Kurey on the sidelines to rehabilitate a sore foot – which she played on for months last season.
Tech’s recruiting class was ranked No. 8 in the nation last spring by The Tennis Recruiting Network, and that was before Hourigan was a late add – all the way from Turakina, New Zealand.
She’s a feisty sort; Harmon in fact likens her to a, “Honey badger.”
“Having players who can play at a high level is really the most important. In the league we play in . . . you’ve got to be able to play at the level we play where they’re competing against the top players in the country,” he said.
“We’re fortunate that we have nine players who can do that. That’s what changes things. It allows you to do more matchups. If you’d like a lefty against this one player, or one style vs. another style, it’s much easier to make the switches.”
These Jackets appear to be a diverse lot where more is merrier.
Kurey, fellow juniors Kendal Woodward and Natasha Prokhnevska, and sophomores Rasheeda McAdoo and Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer have a lot more help now, and the process of blending into a team is well under way.
It will begin officially when the Jackets play N.C. State in doubles at 2 p.m. Friday, and LSU in singles at 3:30.
“I feel that me and Kendal are the ones that will crack the jokes to break the ice. We like to dance out there on the court,” Renaud said with a smile. “The vocal leader would have to be Megan, she’s the team captain. Everyone else just falls under the category of mutual respect. It’s not an uptight team.”
Conference play begins next spring, making the fall a testing ground.
Lineups will change frequently, even as the Jackets on Saturday will play Georgia State in doubles (10 a.m.) and N.C. State in singles (11:30), and then square off Sunday against LSU in doubles (9 a.m.) and Georgia State in singles (10:30).
Much is new. In college tennis now, the student-athletes are playing no ad; that means that from deuce, the next point wins that game – no need to win by two points. That’ll speed things up.
“This is really the development phase of our season,” Harmon said. “Especially for the freshmen and sophomores, there is something in everyone’s game that we’re working on.
“We’re working at least twice a week individually on their games whether it be forehand contact points, or footwork to specific shots, service actions, returns, adding top spin, taking top spin off, changing balance points, changing the way they set up for certain shots. You can’t do any of that in the spring.”
Renaud came to Tech for sake of having known Harmon as a USTA instructor, and because once she saw the facilities on campus she was smitten.
She’s already a fan of her new teammates as well, and having so many gives her opportunities to expand her skill set.
“You want to see that different ball every chance you get [in practice],” she said. “The different varieties on the team . . . that’s better.”
You’ll get no argument from Harmon, who expects the real payoff to come next spring in ACC play.
“It generates a lot of competition within the team; they have to fight for their spots so you see the best, or sometimes the worst,” the coach said. “Everyone has to earn where they play, and I think that’s important. I think everybody is going to play this week. All four of our freshmen will play in doubles or singles or both.
“You can rest somebody, try different doubles teams. We’re still looking at which doubles teams make the most sense. We have some really good doubles players.”
Unlike football, where the prospect of playing an abundance of freshman is cause for concern, Harmon’s happy with where the Jackets are at. This group of newcomers has already played a great deal of high-level tennis.
This is not a rebuilding year. The Jackets have loaded up.
“They’ve played internationally, they’ve played ITFs, they’ve played USTA pro events, they’ve played pro players, they’ve seen some of the best junior players, and maybe they’ve played someone a few years ago who is now on the pro tour and ranked in the top 100,” Harmon explained.
“They’re advanced in their psyches. They’ve been away from home. They’re used to being independent and doing a lot of the things that some of the other freshmen would have issues with coming to school.”
Get The Good Word in your e-mail box — it’s free! Just register here to get the latest features on Georgia Tech Athletics.