Sept. 29, 2011
KNOXVILLE - After one weekend of individual play, the Tennessee women's tennis team already has a lot to build upon. But it also has a lot to build to reach the goals it wants to accomplish in 2011-12.
"It gives all of us a better idea of the things we have to work on," co-head coach Sonia Hahn-Patrick said. "There's nothing that substitutes match play. They've been practicing great and hitting the ball clean, but going out in pressure situations in a match and trying to perform, it really exposes your weaknesses. It's been good. It shows us what they've gotten better with and it also shows us what they have to get better with."
Winning the second-most combined matches (19) in a loaded Furman Fall Classic that included six teams from the top 35 of the final 2011 ITA rankings was impressive, but the Lady Vols' season-opening tournament took its toll.
After taking Monday off, the lingering effects carried through what the coaches called a `sluggish' Tuesday morning practice.
"It was the first tournament of the season so we were all tired from that, the emotions and the physicality of it," sophomore Brynn Boren said. "It just kept on going into the week. We responded well. We got kicked in the butt a little bit after that first practice and we said `You know what? We have to get back into it.' So we did."
The slow start to the week culminated from a variety of factors, but Hahn-Patrick was pleased with how the team finished it.
"As the week has gone on, it has gotten a lot better," Hahn-Patrick said. "It's really difficult to come back from a tournament. The next day, you're trying to get caught up on things. We have early morning practice. The girls have been doing great, but I think they got off to a little bit of a slow morning Tuesday. As the week has gone on, they've done a lot better, gotten refocused and worked hard."
Hahn-Patrick is in her 15th season at Tennessee. With tennisrecuiting.net tabbing the Lady Vols' freshman trio the fifth-best recruiting class in 2011, where does it rank among her 15?
"For me, in my 15 years, I think this is one of the best freshman classes," Hahn-Patrick said. "I think all of these girls are first of all, tremendous kids. They're very coachable. They're willing and wanting to work, to win, to please and to represent. I'm really excited."
That excitement has just scratched the surface, as five-star recruit Caitlyn Williams had shoulder surgery in the spring and started hitting within the past couple weeks. The coaches believe it will be a quick transition for her to compete, but won't make that transition until they know she's ready.
"We're going to be really cautious and conservative because we want to make sure that she comes back steadily," Hahn-Patrick said. "We're trying to get her back for November."
Boren is ecstatic, but not just because she's not a freshman anymore.
"The freshmen are awesome," she said. "They're great additions to the team. They have positive attitudes every single day. They're hard workers. You couldn't ask more from a freshman class."
Freshman Sarah Toti started her Tennessee career with a stellar 3-0 start at the Furman Fall Classic, winning the flight four singles title.
"Definitely," Toti said on whether the weekend boosted her confidence. "Even at practice, I'm playing better, swinging more and being more confident in my shot selections and everything. It's really nice to see that the hard work is paying off so I just have to keep doing it and see where it takes me."
If the work ethic she's displayed thus far is any indication, the improvement should continue.
"I've seen a huge jump in her game," Hahn-Patrick said. "I've seen a huge jump with her physically and mentally. She's been really consistent with her practices and it's really paid off. She's extremely coachable. She's really applied a lot of the things that we've been working on in practice in her matches and I think the results show for that."
If anyone can assess her progress, it's her doubles partner.
"We have good chemistry," Boren said of the 28th-ranked duo. "We've only played with each other for one tournament but from that I can see that we're going to be a really good team. She's a great player, really talented. She's improving like crazy right now."
Also improving `like crazy' is Henderson, who won her final two singles matches at Furman to open her career 2-1.
"Her level of intensity has just changed so drastically coming from her practice in Scotland and coming here," Hahn-Patrick said. "She's been working hard. She just physically, I don't think was quite prepared and had to take a little bit of time off to get healed up.
"Now, she's able to start putting the work in. She has a wealth of talent and just kind of has to learn things and overcome things as a freshman."
Ranked 22nd with senior Natalie Pluskota in doubles, the combo finished third in the top doubles flight at Furman.
A class that will certainly do its fair share of carrying the program over the next few years, the trio is already inseparable.
"We live together so we're around each other all the time," Toti said. "We do study hours together, eat lunch and dinner together. We really have a good bond. It's great having other teammates here who are going through the same things you are whether it be academically, on the court, training or anything like that.
"We've all been able to relate to each other and support each other when one of us might be having a bad day or something like that. It's really been great building friendships with them and being teammates."
SERVING UP: ITA ALL-AMERICAN CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Lady Vols return to action with the ITA All-American Championships in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Junior Kata Szekely is already out west and will participate in prequalifying singles Saturday.
Szekely, who started the 2011-12 campaign with a flight three singles title at Furman, will play senior Alina Shazhko of Stephen F. Austin at 1:15 PDT. Shazhko was the Southland Conference Freshman of the Year in 2009.
The 3-0 junior can advance to the qualifying singles with three more wins.
Boren, Henderson, Pluskota and Toti will also make the trip.
Pluskota, already penciled in for the main draw of doubles with Henderson, is slated to play in qualifying singles. Brynn Boren, a native of Laguna Niguel, Calif., is scheduled to compete in qualifying singles as well, while also playing in qualifying doubles with Toti.
Draws will be released as the tournament progresses.