For Marika Akkerman and Cassandra Vazquez — both freshmen — the USTA Collegiate Clay Court Invitational in Orlando was unlike anything they’d experienced before.
It was the largest clay-court event in college tennis. It featured many of the country’s top players. Every athlete received credentials upon arrival. And it was held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World.
“It was almost like playing in a professional tournament,” said assistant women’s tennis coach Courtney Nagle.
If Akkerman and Vazquez felt overwhelmed, they didn’t show it. They both performed up to or better than expectations. Akkerman earned a first round win before bowing out to the tournament’s top seed; Vazquez knocked off the No. 7 overall seed to reach the quarterfinals; and together they nearly defeated the No. 1-seeded Auburn doubles team in the second round.
As the Tar Heels’ only two representatives at the tournament, Akkerman and Vazquez were joined only by Nagle in Orlando. The rest of their teammates stayed in Chapel Hill to prepare for the upcoming ITA National Indoor Championships in New York with head coach Brian Kalbas.
Nagle said the trip was a valuable opportunity to spend time with two of the team’s promising freshmen. With only two players to keep tabs on, Nagle could focus on the details of each player’s game and tailor her instructions to individual needs.
“There was only one time when they were playing at the same time and that was their second-round match,” Nagle said. “But for the other matches, I was able to watch every point and see them compete throughout the match. At other tournaments when you have more players, you don’t get to see as much because you’re bouncing back and forth between courts.”
Vazquez said she was thankful for the one-on-one attention she received from Nagle throughout the weekend. It was especially helpful, she said, during her 6-2, 6-4 victory against No. 7-seeded Daneika Borthwick of Florida State.
“Florida State was the host of the tournament, so Borthwick had a lot of fan support during our match,” Vazquez said. “That was a challenge for me because she had a lot more cheers after she won a point than I did. But I think Coach helped me find motivation out of that, and that’s what helped me come out on top.”
After holding their own against some of the country’s best players, Akkerman and Vazquez ultimately walked away from Orlando with a boost in confidence.
“I think it showed me that I’m not that far off from the highest level of college tennis,” Akkerman said. “If I keep improving and working hard, I know I can compete at the top.”