With the wind, which is so often a non-factor in the increasingly humid days of May in Gainesville, swirling across the court and scattering a water bottle or two, Allie Will—the number one women’s tennis player in the country—set her feet and let rip on a exquisitely-timed and powerful forehand. As it had just moments before, the ball blew by her Washington State opponent, skidding to a stop at the wall behind the baseline at center court at Linder Stadium. Above that wall, the Gator tennis fan faithful—an eclectic mix of sun-baked senior citizens, young kids and their thirty-something parents, sporadic groups of students, student-athletes from other sporting codes—broke into an equally diverse blend of cheers. Of course, there is the ubiquitous “Let’s go Gators!” but many also yelled Will’s first name, an example of the intensity and familiarity that epitomizes the experience of watching this talented group. Across six courts in singles play, the Gators women’s tennis team, currently ranked second in the nation, blanked Washington State: to put the domination into perspective, not one of the team gave up a set on way to the 6-0 victory.
Although one could write about any one of the players on the team to talk about the relentless energy and effort brought to the court on that day, Will is both the most talented and most intriguing player on the team. To describe fragments of her match is a poor imitation of how tennis, like all sports, is about momentum and the capturing of that momentum, but it does give a glimpse of why if you have missed this team play live, you’ve missed something special. In the third game of the first set, Will, a junior and All-American, was engaged in a war of attrition with her opponent, a player who favored long, looping forehands to combat the precision and speed of Will’s strokes. After going back and forth in a rally where Will could not quite deliver the knockout blow, a deep ball caught the WSU player off-guard, and Will sprang on the misplaced return; delivering a forehand as emphatic as a boxer’s left hook, the Florida Gator blasted a clean, brutal winner. Not so much a punctuation mark but rather promise fulfilled, it proved to show that Will wasn’t going to lose the match. Not now, and definitely not here on this home court, with a hungry and victory-infatuated crowd watching.
As the wind grew in strength and began pushing the ball from where each player intended to place it, Will kept her composure; indeed, she took advantage of her opponent’s sagging on-court demeanor. (In one exchange, the WSU player, rather than return the ball to her Gator opponent, hit it wide onto a neighboring court, an action that elicited a subdued dressing down by the match umpire.) To extend the boxing metaphor, the WSU’s player’s frustration came from the fact that Will’s consistent, commanding forehand had the effect of an extended flurry of body shots. Eventually, something has to give. But it wasn’t just the case of extended force leading to victory; Will dominated the second set with finesse, too, at one point hitting a drop shot with spin into the unpredictable win that escaped the long reach of her opponent.
It is probably unfair to focus on one player when talking about a team that when in action displays the sort of passion and will to win that could make even a casual fan an enthusiast. But Will really does epitomize what is great about this squad. Thus, it is the team’s head coach, Roland Thornqvist, who, in an interview with The Gainesville Sun, so succinctly described what is so extraordinary about Florida women’s tennis today:
“It’s really interesting to see and be a part of a team that is so driven and has the desire to win like these guys,” Thornqvist said. “It is remarkable to see how they prepare. Before the match as a coach, you don’t have to do much. We roll out the balls, we give them water and they take care of everything else. It is really a unique group, and a lot of that stems from an incredible desire to win. I feel blessed to be a part of it.”
As the team continues to advance through the tourney, do not miss the opportunity to watch them play. Will might be the most explosive, but she is also representative of a team that does what Gator fans value above most everything: win, and win with an exclamation point.
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