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Try a Little Tenderness

April 8, 2011

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

Jillian O’Neill plays hard.

If there were such a thing as playing too hard, O’Neill would fall into that category.

“The analogy that we like to talk about is, `let’s use more than just a hammer out there on the court,'” said Georgia Tech women’s tennis head coach Bryan Shelton. “She had a hammer, and every ball looked like a nail to her. The balls that shouldn’t have looked like nails were looking like nails.”

Shelton has gotten O’Neill to dial it down just a little and she and Georgia Tech have benefitted.

When the No. 12 Yellow Jackets (11-6, 4-3, 5th in the ACC) take the court in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday to take on No. 3 North Carolina (18-4, 7-1, 2nd), and in Durham, to challenge No. 4 Duke (18-2, 7-0, 1st) on Sunday, they’ll be looking for O’Neill to come up big and set an early tone out of the No. 1 spot. (Both matches begin at noon. Fans can get live scoring updates on Ramblinwreck.com).

It won’t be easy, as she’ll have to get past UNC’s Zoe DeBruycker, then Duke’s Nadine Fahoum, but Shelton believes O’Neill is capable of rising to the occasion.

“I don’t think the players up there are going to be any different from the level of players that she’s already played,” he said. “So I think going into this weekend we kind of just look at it as two more great opportunities, one at a time. Let’s figure out what’s the most effective way to play this weekend, let’s be confident and go after it.”

That formula has worked well this spring for O’Neill. Since being moved up from No. 3 to No. 1, the Montreal native has gone 5-1. The Yellow Jackets have gone 5-1 as well, winning three of their last four ACC matches. They are ascending at the right time, with the season down to its final two weekends.

“I think we’re in a great mindset as a team,” said O’Neill. “We’ve really been working hard. So hopefully it will work in our favor.”

O’Neill’s move has worked to the team’s favor. She is showing the kind of leadership and pride typical of a No. 1.

“It’s definitely meant a lot to me,” she said. “To be able to move to one has been great. I feel like at three it allowed me to keep climbing. I built more confidence at three, and when I got to play at one, I kept climbing. I had more confidence.

“I want to be able to prove to myself that I can hold my spot for my team and be able to bring home a point at spot one.”

In building her confidence while getting her to diversify her game, Shelton has built a perfect beast, almost.

“I felt like she was talented enough even back at the beginning of the season to be able to play the No. 1 spot. She hit the ball as well as any player in the country,” he said. “For her it was really about adding a few other wrinkles to her game and getting physically fitter so that she could win the longer points, the longer games, the longer matches. If you look at her record, she was losing a lot of the tougher matches earlier in the season, and (now) she’s winning those matches.”

An important step in her progression came on March 24 at the Moore Tennis Center, against Notre Dame’s Kristy Frilling, then the No. 3 player in the nation.

They knew each other from playing at junior level, but it’s doubtful that O’Neill looked anything like the one Frilling remembered. The Tech junior dominated the match, winning in straight sets, 6-0, 6-3.

“I went into the match really focused on what I was doing, not on her ranking because, obviously, she’s a great player,” said O’Neill. “I wanted to focus more on being loose, staying in the present, working hard for every point. It really worked out for me.

“It did give me confidence because I think at the beginning of the year, I didn’t pull off the wins at first. It gave me confidence for my next matches.”

O’Neill is 3-1 since that match and hadn’t been extended to three sets until her last match at Boston College. In that match, after dropping the first set, 3-6, to B.C.’s Alex Kelleher, O’Neill turned up the heat, and lost one game over the final two sets.

Improving O’Neill’s mental game has been a priority for Shelton.

“Her talent is good enough that she can beat the top players in the country, especially on a good day,” he said. “What we’re still working on is her being able to beat some of the best players in the country when she’s having a bad day, when she doesn’t have her ‘A’ game. But I think she believes in herself. I don’t know that she fully believes yet that she can beat those players when she’s having an off-day. That’s what we’re working on.”

That work is starting to pay off.

“Before, I’d get frustrated when my ‘A-Game’ wasn’t there because I did hit such a big ball,” O’Neill said. “But [Shelton] basically taught me to change my game up when things aren’t going well, which I was never really able to do before. He also taught me to be tougher mentally, because if things weren’t working, I would get frustrated and I would keep going and hitting and hitting. He taught me to take a step back, change the pace up, do something different to try and turn things around. That’s helped me take my game to another level.”

Shelton believes there are higher levels within O’Neill’s grasp.

“She’s a special talent. I don’t think she’s even scratched the surface of what she can do ultimately in this game,” he said. “I just hope that she’s willing to continue to put in the hard work and find out.”

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