Feb. 21, 2018
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Nami Otsuka doesn’t get to see her dog very often these days, which is a bit of a bummer, but she’s looking forward to seeing the Bulldogs on Friday, when No. 12 Georgia Tech will play host to No. 6 Georgia at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.
That’ll be good, even if it won’t match the joy of visiting with her 5-year-old Yorkie-Poo, Ku, who moved several months ago with her parents from Norcross to Japan so the elder Otsukas could be near their parents.
The sophomore has a warm memory of a Bulldog encounter. Just about a year ago, she rallied to beat Mariana Gould 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4 to clinch Tech’s second win ever in Athens over UGA.
That was a big deal.
“For sure, because I never felt like I would clinch in my freshman year,” Otsuka recalled. “In that pressure situation, it feels so good to be able to close out the match for everyone. I don’t know, it was just like happiness.”
There’s always joy when the Yellow Jackets send the Bulldogs packing, but lest we get all crazy here, women’s tennis head coach Rodney Harmon brings a wet blanket to the table. He has bigger pictures in mind, even as he zeroes in on the micro at the moment.
He considers playing UGA a big deal only because it provides a measuring stick. The conference schedule, after all, is nigh; that’ll start Sunday when Tech plays at No. 19 Florida State.
“For me, no,” he said of the maybe-not-so-massive meeting with Georgia. “What it is for us is we see where we are. They are a great team, and they have a great program. Other than that, our conference matches are the most important. The FSU match is just as important. That’s the start of our ACC season.”
Otsuka is on a bit of a roll, although that’s nothing new. She’s won five straight matches, chiefly at No. 5 singles, with her most recent two ending unfinished with her leading in the third set as the Jackets otherwise clinched team wins.
She had a solid run as a fall freshman last season, and then went 25-2 in spring dual match action to earn third team All-ACC honors.
And Harmon thinks she’s better now.
The Jackets will need all they can get against the Bulldogs. Tech has two players currently ranked by the ITA in No. 25 senior Paige Hourigan and No. 83 freshman Ida Jarlskog. The Bulldogs will bring No. 6 Katarina Jokic, No. 53 Kennedy Shaffer, No. 75 Marta Gonzalez, No. 78 Morgan Coppoc, and No. 96 Gould.
Tech will not go in empty-handed.
Jones, in fact, was critical against Georgia last spring when she upset No. 41 Caroline Brinson 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 on the way to Tech’s win over the Bulldogs.
Harmon believes Otsuka is even better equipped to help then Jackets now.
“She’s a kid who spends a disproportionate amount of time in the gym trying to get stronger, and she spends a lot of time on the court,” he said. “She now has more shots off of her forehand. She already has one of the best backhands in college tennis. She’s serving better and she’s better defensively.”
Otsuka probably wouldn’t argue any of that, especially since she seems to barely think about tennis when she’s not playing or practicing it.
She’s trying to branch out.
As a child, she played only tennis competitively, although she fooled around with soccer in “the park,” and she’s just now branching out to try more sports as a participant and a viewer.
“I got into the sport because my dad was a tennis coach. I started playing when I was 5 or 6, and got into tournaments when I was 7,” she said. “I’ve been trying more sports recently. [Monday], I tried Frisbee. I’ve been playing ping-pong, stuff like that . . .
“I have a goal this year to go to at least one event in each sport to see the atmosphere and how these teams compete. It’s just cool. You see these people every day but you don’t know what they do, and then you see them compete and it’s like you’re watching a celebrity.”
Otsuka would seem to have no concept of herself being a celebrity.
She just wants to win, even more as the member of a college team vs. growing up in junior tennis where it’s every woman for herself.
“I feel like the person next to you is trying to fight for you, and it gives me extra motivation because I’m not just playing for myself; I’m playing for the people who are beside me and the coaches and the school. It’s just that much better,” she said.
“If I lost the first set I realize I have to put up a fight, get it together and try to stay out there as long as I can. It’s a different mindset. In junior tennis, if you lose the first set, you’re basically done.”
Make no mistake, Friday’s match against Georgia is big, and in a way it’s even bigger for Otsuka.
Her mother and a cousin will travel from Japan to see the match, and stick around long enough to see the Jackets host No. 23 Virginia and No. 47 Louisville next Friday and Saturday.
So, in a way, Friday will be homecoming for Otsuka, who can be a tiger on the court.
Even though she won’t see her dog soon, can credit her pet for her career choice.
“I want to be a veterinarian,” she said. “I found that last year when I realized that I love animals.”