April 25, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Julia Elbaba has been an elite tennis player since her first day at the University of Virginia. She's much more than that now.
As a freshman in 2012-13, Elbaba quickly established herself as the Cavaliers' best player. She was not, however, always the best teammate, Elbaba freely acknowledged this week.
Elbaba, who graduated from the on-line Laurel Springs High School, had never played on a tennis team, and so her first year in head coach Mark Guilbeau's program posed challenges for this Long Island, N.Y., native.
"It took me a while to adjust to the whole team format," Elbaba recalled. "I'm going to be honest: It was kind of difficult for me to cheer for teammates when I was losing my own match.
"It was really tough for me, but people pointed out that it was important I did that, and in my spring semester of first year, and now this year, I've greatly improved in that department, and that's why Mark has made me a captain. I really am showing signs of leadership now, finally."
Not coincidentally, perhaps, this UVa team may be remembered as the best in program history. The Wahoos, No. 7 in the latest ITA rankings, earned a share of their first regular-season ACC title last weekend. An opportunity to win the ACC tournament for the first time comes this weekend in Cary, N.C.
"It's a great feeling, bringing this program to places it's never been," said Elbaba, one of two Cavaliers named to the All-ACC first team this week, along with sophomore Danielle Collins, a transfer from the University of Florida.
In the ACC quarterfinals, third-seeded UVa (18-5) meets sixth-seeded Georgia Tech (13-8) at 3 p.m. Friday. The `Hoos defeated the Yellow Jackets 4-2 in Charlottesville on April 5.
The NCAA tournament will follow for Virginia, which has never made it past the Sweet Sixteen in this sport. For now, though, winning the ACC tourney is "definitely our first goal," Elbaba said. "It has been our goal since the beginning of the semester."
When the NCAA team tournament ends next month in Athens, Ga., the singles and doubles tourneys will begin. Elbaba is ranked No. 4 in singles and, with freshman Rachel Pierson, No. 13 in doubles.
Elbaba said she'll enter the NCAA tournament "100-percent focused on the team event. I'll think about the individuals after that, and separate the two events, because they're completely different. To do well in either one would be great."
No one at UVa will be surprised if she does well in both. At 5-foot-5, Elbaba is "not the tallest and biggest of kids, but she's extremely explosive," Guilbeau said. "She uses the court as a source of power. She pushes off the court into her shots. At the point of contact, you'd think she was jumping. I think the best tennis players do that, and they do that without jumping.
"She does that on her ground strokes, she does that on her serve. She does it really pretty much all around the court. Her game is extremely well-rounded. She can play all parts of the court. She can hit the ball to all parts of the court. She can hit just about every kind of shot you would imagine. But probably the mainstay of her game is the power that she generates from the ground, and her forehand in particular is a very striking and dangerous shot. She can change a point with one swing of the racket."
Moreover, Guilbeau said, Elbaba is "one of the quickest, hardest-working kids, in terms of covering the court. She is not offended at all by playing defense. Tennis is an offensive and defensive game, and she'll do both, and she'll do it as well as anyone in the country."
"I was looking at a wide range of different schools," Elbaba recalled, "and I felt like UVa had the perfect balance for me. It wasn't too far away from home, and I fell in love with the school, the coaches, the campus, and I think it's the perfect fit for me."
It didn't hurt, either, that UVa's colors -- blue and orange -- are also those of her beloved New York Knickerbockers.
"Can't go wrong there," Elbaba said, smiling.
Many elite junior players leave home to train in USTA academy programs. Elbaba stayed with her parents in Oyster Bay, N.Y., through high school. And so when she moved into a dorm at UVa, it "was a huge adjustment from Day One, living on my own and then training on my own without my normal coaches," Elbaba said.
Guilbeau and associate head coach Troy Porco "have been the best coaches that I've ever had," Elbaba said. As a first-year, though, "I was constantly homesick, but somehow being on the tennis court was like being home. That was the only place I really didn't feel so homesick, on the tennis court.
"Because tennis felt like home to me, I felt like that's why I had such a good first year. I was so focused and intense during practices. I didn't want to get off the tennis court, to be honest."
In the fall of her first year at UVa, Elbaba advanced to the championship match of the ITA All-American tournament in Los Angeles. Never before had a Cavalier reached even the quarterfinals of one of the three major tournaments: the ITA All-American, ITA National Indoors and NCAA Championships.
A stress fracture in her right tibia, however, ended her fall season prematurely in 2012 and forced her to withdraw from the ITA National Indoors at Flushing Meadows in New York City, home of the U.S. Open.
"I was just dying to go home and see my family," Elbaba said, "and I couldn't."
Once she was cleared to play again, Elbaba put together a sensational spring season. She finished her first year with a 35-12 record in singles and became UVa's second ITA All-American. The ITA National Rookie of the Year and ACC Freshman of the Year, she was the first Cavalier to earn a seed in the NCAA singles tournament.
Along the way, she grew more comfortable with living away from home.
"I'd say last year by mid-spring, I felt like this is where I want to be, this is where I belong, and it all started to feel normal," Elbaba said.
Elbaba, who plans to major in media studies and minor in French, said she inherited her speed from her mother, Lina, who ran track in high school.
As a girl, Elbaba did gymnastics and played basketball and softball. She also danced "for many years: jazz, tap, ballet," Elbaba said. "So I've been athletic all my life, and that's kind of why I have pretty strong legs, which is the reason why I'm so explosive on the tennis court."
By the time she began high school, tennis had become her primary athletic focus.
"I guess once I became home-schooled, it hit me that I'm going to take this seriously, and this is not just for fun, and I want to go as far as I can, and I do have aspirations of being a pro," Elbaba said. "So I work hard every day for it."
Her singles record this year in 28-5. In dual matches, she's 16-3. The value of having such a dominant player in the No. 1 spot, Guilbeau said, cannot be overstated.
"If you're missing that player or they're on an off day, it sounds strange, but it's a lot more than just one point in a match," he said. "It literally can take a 7-0 win and turn that into a 4-3 loss. And that's how much credit you give to those top kids. Every spot's important, but in fairness it does start [at] the top, and that strengthens your lineup immediately."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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