Georgia Tech freshman Irina Falconi
© Jerry Pillarelli
Falconi gets set to hit a forehand
© Jerry Pillarelli
(l to r) Notre Dame's Kristy Frilling, Falconi and Tennessee's Caitlin Whoriskey in France for the Master’U BNP Paribas competition
© Irina Falconi
Georgia Tech sophomore Irina Falconi is currently the top-ranked player in the ITA Division I Women's Rankings. The 19-year-old from Jupiter, Fla., had one of the best rookie seasons of any player ever at Tech and has continued her great success this season, as well, earning ACC Player of the Week honors for the fourth time this week after helping the 36th-ranked Yellow Jackets upset both No. 12 Georgia and No. 17 Vanderbilt.
Falconi, who notched 30 singles wins as a freshman and earned 2009 All-American and All-ACC honors, represented the United States at the Master’U BNP Paribas, an international collegiate competition in Poitiers, France, last December. Among her other career highlights, she won the 2009 Riviera/ITA All-American Championships and captured USTA Pro Circuit titles at $10,000 events in Atlanta and St. Joseph, Mo.
Falconi recently took time to talk with USTA.com about her experiences at Georgia Tech, what she's learned from her coach, Bryan Shelton, her goals for the year and more.
USTA.com: You were one of the top recruits in the class of 2008. Tell us a little about your recruiting experience and why you chose Georgia Tech.
Irina Falconi: I actually had a very unique recruiting experience. About two and a half years ago, I was set on taking a year off to play professional tournaments, but before I made any decision, my coach at the time wanted me to visit Georgia Tech because they had just won the NCAA title and Bryan had been named Coach of the Year. We were driving to Virginia, so on the way there, we met with Bryan in the morning and talked for about two hours. And I was blown away. I knew that if I were to go to college it would be Tech. About a year goes by without talking to Bryan. I am playing a match in Houston, Texas, and I end up losing the match. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I was going to college. I email Bryan and ask him whether he has a spot. He responds, “Yes, but we’re going to have to hurry.” I meet him again at National Hard Courts in Berkeley a few weeks later, and a week after that I’m enrolled as a freshman at Georgia Tech.
USTA.com: Did you ever consider turning pro? If so, how difficult was that decision for you?
Irina Falconi: I definitely considered turning pro before coming to school. I was more attracted to the idea of taking a year off and then deciding after that, but the biggest deterrent was the financial part of the decision. Once I met Bryan and I knew what he was all about, I think that made my decision of not turning pro so much easier.
USTA.com: You had a great freshman campaign last year, earning All-American honors, but you really made strides this season, establishing yourself as one of the top players in the nation. What kind of improvements have you made from last year to this year?
Irina Falconi: Last summer, I made my fitness and movement my main goals in becoming a better player. I sought out ways to get fitter, stronger and faster off court. I had a lot of match play under my belt during those months, so I was getting match-fitter, as well.
USTA.com: You were a member of the 2009 USTA Summer Collegiate Team and had some great success, winning two singles titles and a doubles title. How was that experience?
Irina Falconi: Being part of a team is always an experience. I’ve had the privilege to be part of a team for a year and a half now, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. The support system and bonds that are created with the experiences shared is unbelievable.
USTA.com: Your coach, Bryan Shelton, is one of the most successful coaches in college tennis. What have you learned from him since coming to Georgia Tech?
Irina Falconi: Ha, what haven’t I learned? Not only have I become a much smarter player on court, but I’ve learned to become a better person. I’ve never met anyone who has said something negative about Coach Shelton, and the fact that I get to be around him every single day – I’m definitely blessed.
USTA.com: What are your goals for yourself and for your team this season?
Irina Falconi: I think like most teams around the country, as a team we want to win the NCAA title. We are definitely in contention to win the ACC title, so that’s also high on our list. Individually, I would like to put myself in the position for another national title. Perhaps doubles, as well? Haha!
USTA.com: There are a lot of great rivalries in the ACC. Which match do you look forward to the most?
Irina Falconi: The match that I’m looking forward to the most is probably Duke. They are the defending NCAA champs, and to see our team come out and compete to win will be really exciting for all of us.
USTA.com: In December, you were a member of the U.S. team that won the Master’U event in Poitiers, France. How was the experience of representing your country abroad?
Irina Falconi: Representing your country is one of those experiences that cannot be compared to anything ever done before. I didn’t know I was actually in France and playing for USA until I was wearing my Team USA gear. I had never been to Europe, so it was definitely a trip of firsts for me. The coaching staff was unbelievable, and the team that we had – you could not have asked for a better group.
USTA.com: Was it fun to play alongside Caitlin Whoriskey and Kristy Frilling, players you normally compete against?
Irina Falconi: Absolutely. Caitlin and Kristy are two amazing girls, and the fact that I got to spend time with them on and off court was fantastic. I knew that during season, we would be rivals, but at the end of the day, we’re all playing for the same thing – and that’s to win.
USTA.com: Georgia Tech is very demanding academically. What is your favorite class? How do you balance your time between tennis and school?
Irina Falconi: Right now, my favorite class is my Race and Ethnicities class that focuses on the struggle and toil that different racial groups have faced while immigrating to the States. It’s a very interesting class, and the fact that there are only 10 people in the class makes it very interactive. During season, I think that it is very important to find the balance between academics and athletics very early on because it’s going to gradually get tougher and tougher. My biggest tool when balancing the two is having a schedule that plans out my days, weeks, even months.
USTA.com: What advice do you have for junior tennis players who want to play in college?
Irina Falconi: Going to college was probably the most important and best decision I ever made. The relationships that you will create with your teammates, classmates and coaching staff are irreplaceable. If you are a junior tennis player who wants to play in college, have fun and get a great academic education, come to Georgia Tech. We have a spot for you.