K-State Tennis returned from Arlington this week after their first matches of 2021 against Kansas, Texas Tech and Utah.
The Wildcats grabbed 14 singles’ victories – a new season high – and five wins in doubles’ play behind the No. 46 ranked doubles pairing in the country, Maria Linares and Karine-Marion Job.
It was an exciting weekend for a program that has grinded through the COVID-19 pandemic and for their head coach, Jordan Smith.
He chatted with Austin Siegel of K-State Sports Extra about kicking off the year in Arlington, working with a team of international student-athletes and what lies ahead for K-State Tennis.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Over the holidays for your group, did you have players go home or mostly stay in Kansas?
We had one that stayed in town, but we encouraged the girls to go home, especially Anna Turco and Maria Linares who had been away from their families for about 18 months. We didn’t want them to go almost two years without seeing their families. With school taking an earlier break for the holidays, they had about six weeks to themselves, and especially for those two, we needed them to get home just for their overall mental wellness. Seven of our eight [student-athletes] were able to get back to Manhattan in time to quarantine and practice in January.
So, it sounds like you only got back together a few weeks before this tournament?
It’s probably the least amount of practice time we’ve ever had. Everyone got back around the 30th and quarantined on New Year’s Eve. That’s a seven-day quarantine, so we had our first practice on January 7 and then started the tournament on January 11. We only had three team practices before playing our first event. But if we know where we stand and that we can throw you out there because of the reps you’ve had since March, then this is the time to do it.
Are there things you look for in a tournament after a couple weeks off that might start to get ironed out after your group has been able to play a few matches?
The biggest thing is you just want to see the players go in and feel comfortable. We talk about that a lot. We tell the ladies that we’ll never ask anything of you that will be foreign to you. We’re always going to ask you to do things that we know you will be capable of doing. It’s more about being comfortable doing it and the comfort just comes with making the choice to put yourself out there and give it a chance.
We know they can play tennis. Physically, they’re in great shape and our strength coach AJ Kloss does a phenomenal job. He came up with a great winter break plan. That’s where it’s just about taking advantages, making people play to you and being more assertive. The more comfortable you get with that, the more your success will be rewarded in the future.
You’ve got such a strong junior class this season, how important has it been to have those upperclassmen who can kind of lead by example?
I feel like we probably have one of the oldest teams out there. I would say our average age is around 21. So, there’s a lot of maturity out there and veteran status. It’s great that seven out of our eight ladies know what it’s like to be on a team. Then, it’s easier for somebody like Manami Ukita to kind of follow that and say “Well, the path has already been set for me.” Then she can go out there with no expectations and just play a little more free.
Somebody like Manami who’s navigating a pandemic, a new language and a new school, what’s impressed you the most about your freshman?
She’s killing it. The hardest thing for her isn’t on the tennis court. It’s getting comfortable with English. But she’s working her butt off to get more comfortable speaking and speaking up. She’s coming out of her shell a little more. With her, she knows her style and how she wants to play. It doesn’t matter who she goes up against, because there’s no prior impression about this team or that person. She’s going out and playing against whoever we put her up against.
None of us would have guessed that Iona and Manami would have gone out there this week and won three doubles’ matches. We had a few injuries leading up to this event, so we just threw them out there and they surprised us. We were like “OK, let’s just keep rolling with it.”
Completely separate from tennis, what do you think the experience of going on a road trip like this can do for your team in a year that’s been kind of isolating for everybody?
I joked with our team that we spend so much more time in hotels. In some ways, you’re just going from facility to hotel, facility, hotel, facility, hotel and normally we get to go explore or have some fun at a restaurant. But the one positive thing you take out of this season is being around each other more. We have a conference room at each hotel we go to and it’s so great because you’re seeing the bond that’s created among these ladies. It’s been so helpful.
I give my team credit, because I’ve seen them go out of their way to help out Manami. Lilla Barzó does an amazing job with that because she’s her roommate but she’s always making sure she understands everything. Iona helps her out during interviews, but even in doubles, she told me “Io told me to go left or right, and I just listened.”
For both Maria and KJ to earn a top-60 doubles ranking, putting that in perspective, what do you think that says about both the players and the program?
Those girls are on fire right now. To put that in perspective, think about it like this: You have about eight players on a team, so that’s four doubles pairings and there about 300 D1 women’s tennis programs in the country, so you can do the math. For them, to be Top 60 out of that many programs, it shows you how well they’re doing. There are so many pairs out there and we’re starting in the Top 60 out of more than 1,000 pairings. But this is just the start. I told them “This is an incredible start, but I know you’re better than No 46.” They’ve got to be better than No. 32 to qualify for NCAA Doubles, so let’s keep rolling. There’s no need to stop now.
Is there anybody else we haven’t gotten into that impressed you this week? Anybody else you want to talk about?
I think everyone is kind of shining. Margo’s been struggling with injuries, but she got back out there and played three singles’ matches. Anna Turco is getting back to her usual self, even in a loss she was playing great tennis. Same with Lilla Barzó. She hasn’t been able to play for various reasons and she went out there and won all three of her singles’ matches, comfortably. Maria always does a great job. Rosanna Maffei had lost a couple matches, went out there and won a pair of three-setters. Manami came out there and beat people that other players on our team struggle with. Look, I could talk about everyone on my team. But one of the most impressive ones was KJ. I threw her out there because we always knew she had the potential to play with anyone. She split a couple of tough matches and I think she has a newfound sense of confidence in herself that she belongs around the best.
Overall, I told the girls yesterday that this group is so good and so deep that all eight of you could almost play anywhere and we’re still going to be successful. It’s just a matter of believing and holding yourselves accountable. If you’re accountable, then it’s very easy to keep moving forward with all of the goals that you want to achieve.