The South Carolina women’s tennis team has built a dynamic that gives them an edge over opponents during the fall season.
The Gamecocks have had a lot of success so far in the fall, with freshman Sarah Hamner being the first in program history to win the ITA All-American National Championship and junior transfer Ayana Akli coming in as the runner-up in the ITA Carolina Regional.
According to the team, this early success is largely due to the energy and bond the team has built with each other off the courts.
“The energy on one court can transfer to all the other courts, so being able to trust that the person next to you, and then the person next to them, is giving their best effort and has your best intention at heart really means a lot,” said fifth-year Megan Davies.
For Akli, the high energy atmosphere is what sets South Carolina tennis apart from other collegiate tennis programs.
“It definitely pushes us over the edge, because, one, it gets into our opponents head, but then it also hypes us up to the point where we’re playing really well too,” Akli said.
Hamner said having the team’s support at the ITA National Championships was a huge advantage, especially when she was getting frustrated during a close third set.
“I was losing some of those really crucial and close points and from one of them I reacted and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do it,’ and Ayana over here just went crazy," Hamner said. “It totally shifted the momentum, and I was able to push through and win that third set.”
Hamner and Akli are among five newcomers on the team, including freshmen Misa Malkin, Gracie Mulville and Chloe Narboni.
According to Davies, having so many new players come in can be a difficult transition for a team, but that the team's adjustment has been a lot easier since the upperclassmen help out the underclassmen.
“The upperclassmen have done a really nice job of setting the foundation for us,” said Hamner. “Especially Meg, when we first got here, she was our team captain and she went through all of the rules and expectations, which I think helped us move forward and be successful.”
This has made the tough transition into collegiate tennis a lot easier for the freshmen, according to Malkin and Narboni.
Sophomore Lindsay Tulenko said the team has been able to build a strong relationship also because of the standards head coach Kevin Epley has put in place. These standards are called TEDS, which stands for toughness, enthusiasm, discipline and selflessness.
“We definitely have a different presence about us as a team and, as Lindsay said, a lot of it has to do with standards and really every single day training that way, so that it's automated,” Epley said. “When we go into tournaments and people see us, they know we’re going to fight.”
Epley also said this group has excelled in one of the most crucial standards, selflessness, due to their authentic desire to see each other succeed.
"This team has got to the point where we feel comfortable enough to lift each other up and support each other and call each other out," said junior Ana Cruz. "We hold each other accountable, it's a good thing to have that strong bond."
Epley said he wouldn’t put a limit on what this team can do in the spring, as long as they continue to support each other and follow those standards.
“If we’re out there, and we have that, we’re kind of unstoppable,” said Mulville.