Fiona Crawley was 10 years old when she decided she didn’t want to lose.
She was playing in a tennis tournament in Austin, Texas, and her two older siblings, Liam and Solène, were also competing in their respective age groups. There were three levels to move up, and both of her siblings moved up after the first round, but Crawley lost her match.
“They both champed up, and I lost my finals,” Crawley said. “They both got ice cream or something after, and I was like, ‘I don’t deserve to get ice cream,’ and that’s when I was like, ‘Okay, I want to win. I like winning.’”
Liam, who would go on to play tennis at Trinity University, remembers that tournament clearly, too. Even though Crawley lost that one, she flipped a switch moving forward.
“She immediately won and won and won, so she went straight through after that initial loss, just because I think she was like, ‘I refuse to lose again,’” he said.
Eight years later, Crawley continues to win. She came to UNC as the No. 1 player in the class of 2020 and hasn't slowed down at all. When the Tar Heels won their second consecutive ITA National Team Indoor Championship in February 2021, Crawley played a pivotal role, rallying from a set down to win her singles match in the final and helping the team come back against Texas. For this, she earned ACC Freshman of the Week honors.
She just keeps winning.
'Aspire to something'
For much of Crawley's childhood, tennis was the topic of many family dinners. Liam and Solène both began tennis from a very young age, so she was surrounded by it.
With her dad in the military, Crawley's family moved to Japan when she was 6 years old. In Japan, she started playing and practicing tennis consistently. Even though her brother and sister would sometimes have practices late at night, Crawley would come out and hit balls with her dad on the courts next to them.
“That was when I really first saw Fiona as an aspiring great tennis player,” Liam said. “You could tell immediately that she had that natural ability just to put the ball back in the court over and over again from when she was 5, 6 years old.”
Being the youngest, she always fought to keep up with her siblings. Even when playing games like tag, hide-and-seek or just messing around on the trampoline, she was always trying to match Liam and Solène.
This transitioned onto the court.
“It was the three of us, and she was always the worst one, until she turned 15 — and that’s a long time to be the worst one,” Liam said. “I think that did really help her, and it taught her to be a good loser, and it taught her to sort of aspire to something, aspire to beat Solène. Then, when she beat Solène, then it’s time to try and beat me.”
Though the competition was intense, Crawley looked up to her siblings and still does. Liam served as her primary coach throughout most of her career. He traveled to tournaments with her, warmed up with her and organized her matches.
“As an older brother, it’s sort of like that father-daughter coaching relationship that can sometimes be a little bit too hostile, but I think that she has enough respect for me that it worked out,” Liam said. “I’ll never say that she’s better than me, but she’s playing at a higher level than I was."
Because he attended college in San Antonio, he was close enough to train with her and be a coaching figure in her life. He sparked her competitive nature and pushed her to where she is today, but she still sometimes finds it daunting.
“I feel like I really compare my game to his game,” Crawley said. “Tennis, honestly, is so different for guys. I try to keep up with him, I try to hit as hard as him, and be as fast as him, and it is tough, but it’s inspiring to watch him play. I definitely strive to be faster, be stronger, be better.”
Part of this mentality can also be attributed to the time she spent living in Japan. Although the rules of tennis are universally the same, the Japanese approach to the game deeply impacted Crawley's style of play.
“It’s a performance in a way, when you’re on court, and I feel like I definitely learned that growing up in Japan," Crawley said. "Keep a straight face when you’re on court, and then off court you can be whoever you want to be."
'Lean on each other'
Her ability to set everything aside — injuries, emotions, distractions — and find her top level on a consistent basis sets her apart from most players. Starting her collegiate tennis career in the middle of a pandemic, this skill has helped her adjust to the obstacles the coronavirus has presented.
The players have their own designated benches, wear masks when they're not on the court and get their temperatures checked every morning before practice. They're also not all allowed to be in the locker room together. Typically, the team would all go out to a big dinner the night before the first game, but they were even robbed of that tradition.
Obstacles like these can be challenging, especially for a first-year who's new to a team and still trying to bond with her teammates, but Crawley has made do.
“Honestly, I’ve loved it so much,” Crawley said. “The other freshmen and my team, it was more than enough for me. I had so much fun, just doing classes, and going to practice, and just going to the dining hall and going on walks all the time to explore.”
Crawley and fellow first-year teammate Sara McClure found support in each other, which helped the transition go smoothly.
“We definitely had to lean on each other a bunch,” McClure said. “Pretty much with everything — school and tennis — everything is so new to us, running around everywhere and trying to get rides to practice and it was crazy, I couldn’t have done it alone.”
Despite the chaos and the stress that comes along with being athletes in college, both Crawley and McClure are thankful that they at least still get to compete.
“It’s definitely hard some days,” McClure said. “Some days I’ll be feeling tired or don’t wanna go, and Fiona’s like, ‘Let’s go, get excited.'"
Now, even though Crawley is away from home, her family is still involved in her tennis competition. They have a group chat where her mom constantly texts scores and sends links to live updates, so they all have the breakdown of Crawley’s matches.
Because he’s far away, Liam and Fiona have begun to go back to their brother-sister relationship more than their coach-player relationship. It’s apparent to both of them that Crawley is representing not just the proverbial "Team Crawley," but the Tar Heels now, too. ACC Freshman of the Week in Carolina Blue is probably just the beginning for her.
“She adjusted well, she’s playing well, and I think that she’s gonna have a very successful four years,” Liam said.
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