By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Verging on the biggest match of the season to date, Kenya, Nami and Nadia are going at it as if all’s standard, the roommates sweating no more than usual on the warmest day of the year to date, no additional worry in sight.
The sun’s up, and so is the nation’s 10th-ranked women’s tennis team, no matter that half of Georgia Tech’s roster is freshmen from near, far, further and a nearly half a planet away. They practice and play as a laser beam travels, and don’t worry much.
Just a couple months shy of the 10th anniversary of the Tech women’s national title win, now you know a big part of why the Yellow Jackets are ranked No. 10 nationally, and will play at No. 4 North Carolina Saturday with more than a fighting chance to upend the defending ACC champions.
Kenya Jones, Nami Otsuka and Nadia Gizdova might be tagged with greenhorn avatars, but they sure don’t work, play or talk like rookies. Fellow freshman Luca Fabian pitches in, too, and the Jackets don’t lose a beat.
How else would they be 17-2, 6-0 in the ACC and on an 11-match winning streak with an epic win at No. 3 Georgia in their bags?
When head coach Rodney Harmon says, “They’ve done an amazing job,” he’s not kidding.
Yet he discounts the notion that his “newcomers” should be viewed with surprise. It’s nearly April, not last September, and all the Jackets have not only been at it a while wearing the Old Gold & White. Plus, they came with stock.
“They were really well schooled in the junior ranks, and they’ve played a ton of pro tournaments,” the coach said. “They’re not un-tested. They’re used to playing really good players.”
But for Jones to be 23-9, Otsuka 20-7, and Gizdova 16-9? That’s kind of nuts.
Tech’s rolled through the early ACC schedule, and the Jackets were ranked as high as No. 6 last week before slipping in the rankings for sake of the caliber of recent opponents.
It helps that there’s so many of them, these freshmen, because they take pressure off each other.
“Having one another has really helped,” Jones said. “Me, Nami and Nadia room together. We sit in the living room all the time and just talk. I was just telling Paige, when I come to tennis it’s like my island, my paradise . . . just play the sport that I love.”
The elder Jackets have helped plenty, obviously, including senior Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer, who is 5-5 in singles and 5-4 in doubles.
“I would say our upperclassmen have really been carrying us. They’re very supportive and they’ve given us a lot of good advice to get through everything,” Jones explained. “With us being so new, our opponents don’t really know how we play. We have that advantage; they don’t really have a scouting report on us.
“Not having to play the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 spots — that’s Rasheeda and Paige and Johnnise . . . I feel like us playing 4, 5 and 6 really helps us.”
So, the younger Jackets are feeling at home despite the mileage from their hearths. Jones is from Memphis, Gizdova from Laurel Springs, Md., and Fabian from Palhaza, Hungary.
Their far-flung geographical pin points are not new. Hourigan’s from Turakina, New Zealand; Anton-Ohlmeyer came from Aliso Viejo, Calif.; McAdoo hails from Boca Raton, Fla.; and Renaud’s from Miami Beach.
Otsuka might as well be in her living room. All she’s done is go 15-1 in dual tournament action, winning her past 11 matches.
“I know I can rely on the rest of my team because we’ve been doing really well,” she said. “As we start to play the bigger matches, I know I can trust my team and I can trust myself. It was more nerve-wracking in the beginning.”
The Jackets have plenty ahead of them. The ACC is loaded. Tech has a shot, though, at adding to conference titles won in 2005, ’06, ’07 and ’10.
McAdoo is ranked No. 46 nationally, Renaud No. 104 and Hourigan No. 113.
North Carolina will roll out No. 2 Hayley Carter, No. 9 Sara Daavettila, No. 23 Jessie Aney and No. 40 Alexa Graham.
The Jackets, who also play at No. 29 Wake Forest Sunday, are not going in chance-less, to be sure.
They feel good about themselves, largely because the freshmen are adjusted and in alliance with each other and older teammates.
Jones, Gizdova and Otsuka park in their living room from time to time and go to the sounding board.
“We kind of go through everything together, even if it’s a good thing,” Otsuka revealed. “We’ll have a better atmosphere on the team and it brings us all together.”
It appears to be helping.
“I think definitely that’s a factor,” Gizdova said. “There are four of us, and that’s half the team. It’s nice to have to someone else to go through the same things you are, and upperclassmen have been a big part of it, too, helping us on and off the court.”
Harmon’s sure not looking at his squad’s youth as a liability, and he doesn’t believe they have any less responsibility than upperclassmen.
“By this time of year, they’ve played enough matches . . . they’ve been through some battles, won some and lost some; I think they’re pretty battle-tested,” the head coach said. “The pressure’s there because . . . Rasheeda, Paige and Johnnise are playing at the top, where you know they’re going to have a difficult match.”