By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It’s not cliché to say every season has its own personality.
On May 1, 2018, No. 4 Georgia Tech women’s tennis was preparing to embark on a magical ride that would take them all the way to the national semifinals before bowing out to Vanderbilt, 4-2.
One year later, the Yellow Jackets (12-12, 7-7), ranked 41st as they begin the NCAA Championships journey, has a very different personality, primarily because of the very different kind of magic with which it has had to deal.
The magic surrounding this year’s Jackets has been more about seeing things disappear — be it through expected graduation, a somewhat unexpected transfer and never expected injury — then sleight of hand in adjusting and finding lineups that kept the team competitive and lifted it into postseason for the 20th consecutive year.
Georgia Tech will meet No. 25 Ohio State, (19-6, 8-3) beginning Friday at 1 p.m. at the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Tennis Center in Nashville, Tenn., on the Vanderbilt campus. It’s the second time the teams have met this year — the Buckeyes won, 4-0, back on Jan. 26 ITA Kick-Off Weekend at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex — and the second time they’ve met in the NCAA Championships — OSU won the round of 16 matchup in 2016, 4-2.
“It’s been a difficult year for us for what we’re used to and what our standards have been,” said head coach Rodney Harmon, who leads the Jackets to the NCAAs for the seventh straight year. “We’ve had to overcome injuries to a couple of our players, but what’s been good is that a number of players have really handled adversity well and really shown that they embrace adversity in a situation, try to overcome it and try to do better for themselves and for their team and for Georgia Tech. So it’s been positive in that sense.
“We’ve had a BUNCH of tough matches. We’ve been in some battles and we’ve fought and we’ve scraped. They’ve just been able to stick together and keep fighting,” Harmon added. “It hasn’t been easy. A lot of times, the season is a microcosm of life. When you live there are good things that happen and some bad things that happen. How you react to it will tell how it will impact you. You try to take the good part out of it and set a plan and keep moving forward.”
Moving forward this season, meant first finding a way to stay afloat.
Each of the three doubles pairings from 2018 dissolved in Thanos-like fashion due to graduation of Johnnise Renaud and Paige Hourigan, and the transfer of Ida Jarlskog. Then came injuries, which cost the team talented freshmen, Dalila Said (torn ACL) and Jeannette Lin (elbow). The Jackets still finished 11-12 in doubles. Winning the doubles point has proved critical, as GT is 9-2 in matches when they take the doubles point (ironically, they won doubles against Syracuse in their ACC Tournament second-round matchup, which they lost, 4-3), 2-10 when they don’t.
“We’ve struggled with doubles, which is the first time since I’ve been at Tech that we’ve struggled with doubles,” said Harmon. “Obviously, when you’re missing players it’s difficult to get the doubles teams that you want, but I think we’re happy with the doubles pairings that we have right now.”
Those pairings are sophomore Victoria Flores and freshman Valeriya Deminova playing at 1, junior Nami Otsuka and freshman Gia Cohen at 2 and juniors Kenya Jones and Nadia Gizdova playing 3. Flores and Deminova were 11-9 overall and reunited for ACCs but dropped a 6-3 decision to Syracuse. Otsuka and Cohen (11-12) snapped a three-match losing streak with a resounding 6-2 win over ‘Cuse, while Jones and Gizdova, 6-1 as a pair, 5-1 in conference play, also reunited for ACCs and picked up where they left off, winning 6-2 over the Orange.
Jones became synonymous with winning and quality play this season. The 9th-ranked player in the country and an All-ACC first-teamer went 28-11 this spring, 11-3 in ACC play and 15-6 at No. 1. She never lost consecutive singles matches and is 7-2 with one unfinished match in her last 10 and was rewarded by receiving an at-large bid for NCAA singles.
Harmon is counting on the talented junior, who has never gone out of postseason short of the Sweet 16 to lead the way.
“She’s had a great year. She’s had a number of wins in the top 10 and she’s won a lot of matches for us,” he said. “She’s going to come out and play her game and try to lead the team as best she can. We’re fortunate to have somebody playing at her level who really wants what’s best for the team and is going to go out there and fight for every point.”
Cohen at 4 and Gizdova at 6 also are riding hot streaks, as both are 4-1 in their last six matches.
This Jackets team is very different than the one that took the court at Byers in late January. That day belonged to the Buckeyes, who beat then-No. 13 Tech, 4-0, coming back to win the doubles point, then winning singles matches from Said, who had to retire in the second game of the first set, Cohen and Lin.
“They played really, really well at Kick-Off and beat us pretty cleanly,” Harmon said. “We’re looking forward to an opportunity, hopefully we can play a bit better this time when we play them.”
Interestingly, Otsuka and Cohen, who won, 6-3, on Jan. 26, and Flores and Deminova, who fell, 6-4, will again take the court vs. OSU. Jones, who teamed with Lin in January, dropping a 6-3 decision, this time plays with Gizdova.
Harmon sees the familiarity with Ohio State as a wash.
“They know how we’re going to play and we know how they’re going to play. It comes down to who’s executing better,” Harmon said. “It depends on who competes the best, who keeps their emotions under control, who handles adversity best.”
Should the Jackets do those things and advance they would meet the winner of host No. 8 Vanderbilt (16-7, 10-3) and MAC Champion, Miami (Ohio) (12-10, 6-1) on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Regardless, Harmon feels his team already has shown him plenty with what they’ve endured this season — a lot of which they will show next year and in years to come.
“Our team doesn’t have any seniors, so we’re going to have the same team back next year. We realize that and we’re excited about that as well,” he added. “For us to have someone like Gia Cohen come in in January and be able to play No. 4 and win a bunch of matches, that’s going to help her next year a ton! Those kinds of things are going to be big for us. We’ve played some of the best competition in the country and in our conference — our conference got 10 teams into the NCAAs, more than any other conference. We’ve played so many good teams, against so much good competition. We are looking forward to the opportunity to get out and play again.”