#TGW: Rebuilt To Last
Women’s tennis team excited to continue building this fall on what they started last spring
By Jon Cooper
“What’s next?” is the question that follows every season of celebration.
It can take the thrill out of celebrating at the time as it’s kind of a call that it’s time clean up after celebrating and start all over again.
For Georgia Tech women’s tennis, it’s time to face that music following a spectacular run to the Final Four in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the program’s first since 2007.
It was a superb send-off for seniors Paige Hourigan and Johnnise Renaud but is a call to re-arm for the players coming back. It’s time to figure out “What’s next?”
“I think the biggest thing for us is get our newcomers to understand our philosophy of how we play, how we train and to buy into it and to really be able to embrace what has proved successful for us,” said head coach Rodney Harmon, who has led teams to the NCAA Tournament each of the last seven years, with Sweet 16 berths the last three, including last year’s trip to the Final Four. “We have a certain style that we play. Our practices are built around it, our match play is built around it and it’s a little bit different, probably, than many of those kids have been trained in the past. They just have to get adjusted to it.”
The majority of the team already is, as the Yellow Jackets return three juniors, including co-captains Kenya Jones (25-10, 11-2 in ACC in singles, 29-10, 11-5 in doubles) and Nami Otsuka (29-9, 10-3 in singles, 21-16, 6-4 in doubles), as well as classmate Nadia Gizdova, who’ll be looking to earn more court time, and sophomore Victoria Flores (18-18 in singles, 6-5 in ACC play, 22-14, in doubles, 7-2 in the ACC). Then there are incoming freshmen Valeriya Deminova, Jeanette Lin and Dalila Said.
There will be some adjustment, especially to all three doubles teams, as Hourigan, who, with Jones, formed the No. 1 doubles team in the country, Renaud, who partnered with Otsuka, at No. 2, and Ida Jarlskog, who teamed with Flores are gone. The Jackets were 22-9 in winning the doubles point, 11-5 in ACC play.
Harmon believes the Russian-born Deminova, Australia native Lin and Cairo, Egypt-born but Spain native Said, the sixth-ranked recruiting class, can help as each brings something to the table.
“They each are different types of players,” he said. “Jeanette, she has a really, really good ground game, especially her backhand. She plays on the top of the baseline and she’s an attacker. She hits a pretty flat, hard ball and she’s looking to play first-strike tennis. Dalila, coming from Spain, plays a bit more of a Spanish style, where she tries to play back off the baseline. Her game is built around her forehand. She hits her forehand pretty big, with good solid backhand and really nice service motion and then the ability to play offense/defense pretty well. Valeriya is a good all-court player, with a beautiful service motion, great backhand, can volley, and is just pretty much a straight-forward all-court player. She can get forward and put pressure on the opponent.
“We’re pretty excited with the players coming in. We’re just looking forward to getting out there and teeing it up and playing.”
Flores is confident that the team’s chemistry will help form successful teams over time.
“It will definitely work itself out because we have so many new combinations of teams that we can form,” she said. “So we’re going to try to have an upperclassman and a freshman together so it balances out a little bit more, but I can see myself playing with literally any of them. Same for the other girls. The goal at the end of the day is to find out who plays best at what spot and then figure out the teams there. I’m really excited just because of the whole energy of this year, there’s a good vibe and good energy.”
The freshmen are already feeling at home.
“It’s awesome,” said Deminova. “We’re all together, all the freshmen and Vicky, it’s her second year. It’s really fun. I like them very much.”
Harmon is pleased about the foundation in place and believes the returners are doing a good job of teaching “The Yellow Jackets Way.”
“Our captains, Nami and Kenya, are providing a great amount of leadership and help to our freshmen, and Vicky has been incredible spending time with the freshmen. She decided to room with them in an effort to help them in the adjustment to college and college tennis,” Harmon said. “So our returners have all taken on the responsibility of making them feel at home, make them feel comfortable and a part of Georgia Tech.
“Our returners have been on two teams, one that made the Sweet 16 and one that made the semifinals, so they understand what we expect and what we’re trying to get accomplished,” he added. “They want to make sure our freshmen know from the minute they step on campus that our goal is to be a top-10 team in the country. Our goal is to make the Sweet 16. Our goal is to make the ITA National Indoors. Those are the goals of what we’ve accomplished in the past and what we want to accomplish moving forward.”
“I just think of it as, ‘I was a freshman last year. I would want to be treated the way that I’m treating them now,’” Flores said. “I know that it’s so important for the first semester because they’re all foreign. So getting them acclimated and feeling as comfortable as they can in this environment will help them transition more equally.”
The road back to crunch time in the NCAAs starts with the fall tournaments.
Those were supposed to start this weekend, with ITA Hall of Fame Classic in Williamsburg, Va., and the Duke Invitational in Durham, but the threat of Hurricane Florence led to cancellation of both events. That makes the next fall event the ITA Southeast Regionals, Oct. 18-22, which will be at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex. While Tech’s region is tough, Harmon sees it as an advantage.
“It’s really important for them to get out and play,” he said. “The interesting part for them is not only to see how good the other players are but to also see how good they are. We have Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida State, all in the same region. So our region is tough, which is great. You get to play a lot of really good competition and see where you are and also make adjustments and additions to your game.”
Flores believes the experience of last year has paid off for her and likes what she’s seeing in practice.
“I’m so fortunate. I got to the Final Four as a freshman. Some people don’t get to experience that,” she said. “So that sets the bar for me, and, obviously, for my teammates. We know, ‘okay, this is what it’s going to take.’ So we have that standard we want to try and keep. That’s the goal. But we know we still could have gone farther. That’s always pushing me.”
Harmon can’t wait to see how the team harnesses that energy.
“We were fortunate enough to play our best tennis at the end of the year,” he said. “I think the matches against Pepperdine and UCLA, even against Vanderbilt, showed resilience and persistence against some really great opponents. That’s a testament to how hard the girls worked, both on the court and in the gym, and how much they played for each other.
“You understand that each match is a building block,” he added. “A loss is really only a loss if you lose the same way twice. If you learn from that loss, it really can turn into a win for you because again, the key is to grow. We have that mindset. Champions adjust. That’s what we want to be. We have a new team, new players and we have to get new pieces to our puzzle so we’re ready to go in January.”