By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Valeriya Deminova hasn’t experienced Georgia Tech vs. Georgia first-hand, yet she’s heard enough before the No. 31 Yellow Jackets play the No. 1 Bulldogs, that she expects her Saturday in Athens to be similar to growing up in Moscow — which is to say some kind of cold.
The freshman has been told, “They’re kind of super loud.”
History confirms that.
Tennis is a very big deal on macro and micro levels at UGA, which has played host to numerous NCAA championships. The Bulldogs have won two titles outdoors, and they’re just weeks removed from winning their fourth USTA/ITA National Team Indoor Championship.
Those fans get lubed up when Tech visits, and they’re not likely to be suddenly hospitable given that the Jackets won the last time there, in 2017. Add that Tech (3-3) beat Georgia (7-0) last year in Atlanta and could put together its first three-game winning streak in this series and head coach Rodney Harmon says, “If you stream it on-line, you’ll be able to hear the barking.”
History sets the stage, and the Jackets want to keep flipping scripts.
Their current run of three straight wins – including a dominant 5-2 win last Sunday over No. 11 Northwestern after the Jackets dropped the doubles point – creates hope.
With a roster that is half freshmen, including the injured Dalila Said, the Jackets are growing up fast.
Just this week, Deminova is ACC Co-Player of the Week and fellow newcomer Jeanette Lin is ACC Freshman of the Week. Deminova, fellow freshman Gia Cohen and junior Nami Otsuka have three-match winning streaks, and so do Deminova and sophomore Victoria Flores as a doubles team.
Playing for a team that reached the NCAA semifinals last spring only to lose seniors Paige Hourigan and Johnnise Renaud and transfer Ida Jarlskog, they found motivation in home losses — 4-0 to No. 11 Ohio State, 4-3 to No. 37 Auburn and 4-1 to No. 35 Texas Tech.
“I feel more comfortable now . . . and we do a lot of fitness. I just got stronger. That’s why I have more confidence, and it’s easier to play,” Deminova said. “I think everyone feels more comfortable now, and also it was embarrassing when we lost. . . it was like, ‘OK, guys. We need to fight harder and work harder.’ “
They have, and that goes back many months.
It should not be considered a shock that the Jackets got off to such a slow start.
Otsuka missed the entire fall with wrist and elbow injuries.
Lin played just two matches in the fall, her first in more than a year after Tommy John elbow ligament surgery.
And Said was lost for the season in the dual match season opener, against Ohio State, when she tore an anterior knee cruciate ligament.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries and players coming back from injuries, and we’re going to have some good days and some bad,” Harmon said. “In every life a little rain may fall. I just wasn’t expecting a monsoon.”
Beyond injuries, there have been many new faces in new places. Deminova is from Moscow, Lin from Melbourne, Australia, and Said from Cairo, Egypt.
Cohen joined the team after the semester break, from Bradenton, Fla.
They all have had to get used to shorter but more intense practices than what they were accustomed to at the junior level.
“Freshman are adjusting to being in the U.S. and adjusting to being in college tennis,” Harmon explained. “[Deminova] came in and hadn’t played tournaments in quite a while, and she was kind of rusty. It’s taken her a number of months to get back to that level. It’s taken a lot of practice and matches and work with [strength and conditioning coach] Scott [McDonald].
“In one of our drills, you need to be able to play a ball to a certain place at a certain speed. At first, it was a bit of a dumpster fire. But now they’re able to execute all of our drills because everyone is up to the consistency. They’ve gotten the focus and intensity.”
The Jackets will need to be up in Athens.
Every Georgia player is ranked.
At No. 1 singles, Tech junior Kenya Jones – Tech’s lone ranked player at No. 24 — figures to play Katarina Jokic, who is ranked No. 1.
Deminova may match up at No. 3 vs. UGA’s Lourdes Carle, a freshman whom she may well have played before at the junior level. Deminova traveled extensively while playing for Moscow’s Spartak Club, which has sprayed players into a slew of college programs in the U.S.
Carle, an Argentine, played at least once in all four Grand Slam juniors tournaments, reaching the semifinals of the U.S. Open, and played as an amateur in several professional tournaments.
“She’s a freshman, but she’s not really a freshman,” Harmon said.
Deminova is a freshman because she thought about playing professionally, got whipped a few times, and decided college would be a better idea. She contacted coaches with several programs, and chose Tech over Miami and Virginia in part to study architecture.
“I lost everything really bad and I didn’t think I was going to be able to go pro,” she said of her summer of 2017. “I lost my confidence and I decided to go to college.”
Now she’s here, and will help the Jackets close the non-conference schedule at Georgia before jumping into ACC action Sunday at home against Pitt. That will kick off a conference slate that includes No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Duke, No. 12 Florida State, No. 14 Virginia, No. 18 Miami, No. 23 NC State, No. 25 Syracuse, No. 33 Wake Forest and No. 36 Boston College.
“The difference is with freshmen you have to spend more time explaining things to them. You have to find the patterns of play that work for them and get repetition on those,” Harmon said. “They’re getting used to a new voice.
“We have a lot of tests coming up, but I tell them to focus on what’s right in front of you. If you’re in a car and all you’re doing is looking in the rearview and looking ahead of you but not taking the steering wheel, eventually you’re going to crash.”