Feb. 27, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
After a while off, Georgia Tech will take the court Saturday afternoon at Tennessee with a pleasant surprise in tow. Andrew Li, after all, began his college career 1-4 yet is now second among Yellow Jackets in wins.
The freshman from Hong Kong took a while to warm up. He’s cooking now.
With three straight victories, the lefthander is 14-10 overall to trail only Christopher Eubanks (19-5) in wins, and his 9-9 doubles record includes a 6-1 mark and five consecutive wins when paired recently with senior Nathan Rakitt.
Nobody’s played in a while. The Jackets (6-3) last played Feb. 14, when they beat Georgia State and Mercer on the same day, yet Tech has fallen 13 spots in the ITA rankings since, to No. 57.
A win over the No. 56 Volunteers (5-3) may change that, and Li is much better positioned to help than he was last fall. Tech’s only active freshman – Phillip Gresk will be eligible next fall, as a sophomore – is a big part of the Jackets’ resurgence.
“When I first got [to Tech], summer school helped me a lot but in the fall I was a mess in the beginning,” he said. “There was one week I had a lab, two tests and a tournament. I didn’t know what to do, and I did pretty bad on the test.”
Struggling in the classroom and on the court, Li adjusted quickly in both places.
He’s 13-6 since that sluggish start, and his 6-4, 6-4 win over Georgia State’s Sebastian Acuna at No. 3 singles on Feb. 14 was proof. Acuna beat him 6-7, 6-4, 6-1 in October.
“He’s a quick learner, one of those guys who always corrects errors,” said head coach Kenny Thorne. “Every match in the fall he got a little better, and every match this spring he’s gotten better. He lost to that guy in the fall . . . he got predictable on some shots and serves, and he corrected it.”
Li began playing tennis when he was 5 with his father, Hok Wing Li. His dad was a recreational tennis player, and a former professional table tennis player.
Tech assistant coach Derek Schwandt connected with Li outside of Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2014.
“He was playing an ITF tournament, a pretty big tournament,” Thorne said. “He was a little bit under the radar, but ranked in the top 150 in the world in Juniors. We checked out his grades, and he was a very good student.
“He’s a great Georgia Tech kid, going to take care of school, a hard worker. We’re trying to get guys who love the game and he loves the game.”
Once the Jackets got Li, there was work to be done. His skills were solid, but his management was not – either in the classroom or on the court.
“One of the most important things I’ve learned about college is the time management . . . how you handle the tests and homework,” he said.
On the court, Thorne and Schwandt work with Li to mix up his pacing – to make him less predictable.
His second match against Acuna indicated success.
“When I started, I kept thinking about that match [in the fall], but I changed,” Li said. “It’s really small things . . . Kenny just keeps telling me to keep playing my game, accelerate to the ball.”
Li’s rapid acceleration as a player is obvious when he plays doubles with Rakitt. Never mind that his partner is a senior with a resume. Li’s not afraid to call off his more experienced teammate if he thinks he’s got the shot.
“They know their games, and he calls from the baseline a little more than Nathan probably would, and Nathan probably calls at the net a little more,” Thorne said. “He was a little bit tentative when he came in the fall, and we had an office visit and he said, ‘OK. I’ll do it,’ and he went out and did it.
“That’s any coach’s dream. It’s a big thing to believe in what you’re doing. To believe in it, you can do it really well. You can get really good that way.”