When sophomore Sarah Hamner was 4 years old, she had been introduced to a plethora of sports, including tennis, which she never wanted to stop playing.
“I don’t know why," Hamner said. "But when I was that little, I would cry and be like, ‘Can I please play more?’”.
Since then, her desire has extended from simply playing the sport to leaving behind a positive impact on her teammates and the Gamecocks women’s tennis program.
Growing up in Colorado, Hamner became more involved with the sport as she got older. She then moved to Florida with the rest of her family when she was about 14. With the new scenery, however, came new and better players she had to go up against. She said she felt like she had gone from being "one of the best" to "bottom of the barrel."
"For a while, I was really struggling, and sometimes, I would get really emotional and be like, 'I don’t know if I can do it,' just because there was just so much work to do,” Hamner said.
Despite those early struggles, Hamner continued to play and eventually caught the eye of South Carolina head women’s tennis coach Kevin Epley, who was impressed with her character on and off the court.
“She just had a different personality. She was very talkative, she was talking to her brother while I was on the phone, she was laughing … I was like ‘Wow, this is a really neat kid — she’s dynamic and she can carry on a conversation,'” Epley said. “The first time I saw her play … Immediately knew she had a Gamecock spirit. She was very feisty and very competitive and had a great game, and I knew within like five minutes that we really liked her.”
According to Hamner, her competitive nature stems from physically being much smaller than her opponents.
“I was always the runt of the group, so part of why I’m so competitive today and why I love to compete and fight is because I had to claw my way in,” Hamner said.
Hamner said she did not know much about South Carolina during the recruiting process but was convinced to continue playing tennis in Columbia after consulting with a close friend and watching the team play in person.
“When I came here and I saw how hard the girls worked, and I had a really good connection with Coach Kevin, I realized that this would be the place for me to continue to develop my game and prepare me for the pros,” Hamner said.
Within weeks of arriving on campus, Hamner went undefeated in singles in her first career collegiate tournament and later won the ITA singles All-American Championship.
Hamner said she adapted quickly to her new environment because of her desire to get involved and play for her teammates, something she had not done since she was little.
"Tennis is hard because you’re alone a lot ... so when I came here, it was totally different," Hamner said. "I had eight new best friends who were all there to support me.”
Hamner made history on Feb. 24, 2022, after becoming the first in program history to be ranked No. 1 in the ITA singles and stayed in the top six for the entirety of her freshman campaign.
She finished the 2021-22 season with the second-highest single-season win total in program history with 35 singles victories and continued to write her name in the record books this fall when she became the first Gamecock to win an ITA Regional Championship since 1988.
Although Epley is impressed with Hamner’s ability to produce on the court at such a young age, he said her competitiveness is what differentiates her from other players.
“It’s kind of a dichotomy because off the court, she’s super friendly and outgoing and upbeat, life of the party. And she gets on the court and looks like she wants to kill you, so it’s that drive and competition that really separates her from a lot of these athletes,” Epley said. “It’s something that’s really hard to teach.”
Senior Ayana Akli, who has played alongside Hamner in doubles this fall, said she witnesses her competitive drive in daily practices.
“She doesn’t like to lose. Most athletes don’t like to lose, but she’s definitely up there for most competitive person,” Akli said. “Anything and everything we do in practice, or just practice matches, she could be down 1-5, and she’ll find a way to come back just because it’s in her nature to not want to lose ever.”
As Hamner gets more experienced and earns more accolades, Epley said he hopes he can steer her towards looking beyond the short term and working towards season-long goals that help both the team and her as an individual. Among those goals are becoming a leader who can motivate her teammates, contributing to team and individual championship titles, staying at the top of the national singles rankings and entering professional tournaments like the U.S. Open.
Hamner said her ultimate goal is to play professionally one day, but until then, she wants to continue winning tournaments for her teammates and the state of South Carolina.
“I’m really glad that I'm able to win these things for Carolina and accomplish these things for Carolina because another big reason of why I chose here was because I wanted to make history here," Hamner said. "I wanted to be a leader, and so I’m just glad I could add some achievements to that.”