By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Kenya Jones was smiling yet again, something so common that the idea of matching her combined grin time might be an impossible game for many people to play. You’d grin a lot, too, if you were so good.
And keeping up with her on the tennis court will be no walkover, either, because Georgia Tech’s No. 1 singles player is so diligent about a family tradition that she’s ranked No. 14 nationally by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
Hey, she’s just keeping up with the Joneses.
Kenya’s father, Keita, played No. 1 singles for Jackson State and Rust College some years ago, and to this day he works as a most respected youth coach in Memphis, where he guided older daughter Kayla to a college career at Chattanooga that saw her earn first team All-Southern Conference honors. Kayla played No. 1 singles in 2014, ’15 and ’16.
And now here’s Kenya, who legend has it occasionally cried as a wee lass when she couldn’t find someone with whom to hit balls after practice. You can find on-line suggestions from the grass roots level tennis media that they were akin to Venus, Serena and William.
“I guess we can call it a Jones thing because this is my first year playing No. 1. He’s [my dad] always messing with me like, ‘Are you going to move up to the No. 1 spot like me and your sister did?’” she said of her father and the family influence. “It’s pretty exciting to be at the No. 1 because it was my goal to begin with.”
Perhaps she’ll find time to smile again after the No. 33 Yellow Jackets (12-9, 7-5) take on No. 1 North Carolina (24-1, 12-0) at 3 p.m. Friday and after Tech closes out the regular season against No. 9 NC State (21-5, 10-3) at noon on Sunday at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.
Win or lose, there will be good news. Mom probably won’t make it to Atlanta for sake of health issues, but dad figures to be on The Flats to see Kenya play.
“They used to come down here at least once or twice every month, but this year they haven’t been able to come down because (Sofia) . . . can’t sit in the car that long because it’s like a six-hour drive,” Kenya said. “My dad is coming down to see me for the first time this season, so I’m pretty excited about that.”
There is time to craft a warmer, fuzzier narrative this season, although this has not been the season the Jackets envisioned.
Everyone knew that seniors Paige Hourigan and Johnnise Renaud would graduate from last year’s NCAA semifinal team.
Nobody predicted that Ida Jarlskog would transfer to Florida, where the sophomore is now ranked No. 10 in the nation (she and Jones split a pair of matches last fall), nor that talented freshman Dalila Said of Cairo, Egypt, would suffer a season-ending torn ACL in the Tech’s first dual match of the spring.
Jeanette Lin, another talented freshman, found herself tracking back last fall from major elbow surgery and started the dual season with promise before the joint flared and sidelined her. A month later, she tried to play again, but like Said, she is finished for the season.
They both figured to be in the lineup for the ACC season. They’re not, and Tech’s roster has shuffled significantly since last year.
Junior Nami Otsuka, for example, has moved from No. 5 singles – where last season she went 23-6 overall and 10-3 in ACC action — to No. 2, where she’s 10-10 overall, and 6-5 in ACC play.
Jones has a smile for all that data.
“I would say that right now we’re in our building mode because I feel like we’ve had to deal with a lot of difficulties with a lot of people being injured and changing up doubles teams, and trying to figure out who plays what,” she said as the Jackets have won six of their previous seven matches.
“We have things kind of a little more figured out. I would definitely say that and even for some players who are not young. Nami played in the No. 5 spot the whole year and this year she’s had to come through for us at the 2. I would say it’s accelerated growth.”
Jones plays a role beyond her record. She’s 26-10 overall, 13-5 at No. 1 in duals and 7-6 against nationally-ranked opponents. She’s also a team-best 19-10 in doubles matches, even with multiple partners.
But there’s more to guiding a team than winning.
“The only thing that changes is you’re the leader of the team. Everyone is looking down at court 1, so how you carry yourself is the key,” said head coach Rodney Harmon. “The score is not as important as how you control your emotions, and how you fight and compete and battle because everyone’s looking down at No. 1.
“She’ll say what she thinks needs to be said, but she leads more by example. She’s very consistent in her work ethic and her ability to maintain a good level every day.”
Perhaps Jones comes ready to go because she comes from the game.
“My dad coached me growing up so I knew that I was going to be pretty serious about it,” she said. “I played my first serious tournament when I was 8. It was Southerns in Lexington, S.C., and I made it to the quarters. After that, I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do this.’ “
Jones is doing it well. For her, it’s a family affair and her background helps.
“Oh . . . yes. It’s definitely helped,” Harmon said. “She knows what good tennis looks like. She knows what good tennis effort looks like because she’s seen it on a daily basis. Some days you don’t feel it, and that’s when you’ve got to press even harder.
“Anyone can play well when everything’s perfect, but it’s when you’re able to play at a good level when you’re not feeling so good. You’re tired. You’ve got a couple tests. You’re not hitting so well. It’s windy. That’s when you can power through and make progress.”