University of Florida senior Joanna Mather is looking to lead her Gator team to its second straight national team title starting Thursday, May 17, when the NCAA Team Championships Round of 16 gets underway in Athens, Ga. Mather, who was recently voted to the 2012 All-SEC First Team for the second time in her career, enters the NCAA Championships with 209 combined singles (102) and doubles (107) wins. She is just the 16th Gator to reach the 200-victory plateau and is only the seventh in history to have won 100 singles and 100 doubles matches in their career. She has also notched an incredible 54-0 home record in Gainesville during her four-year career.
Mather, a 5-foot-6 right-hander from Duluth, Ga., recently took time to talk to USTA.com about her leadership role on court, handling the pressure of being the defending NCAA team champion and her aspirations to play pro tennis after she completes her collegiate career this month.
USTA.com: Congratulations on a great fall and reaching the singles final at the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships. How have you been able to translate that early-season individual success into success in team matches?
Joanna Mather: Thank you. I think the most important thing I gained from the fall was confidence. It is important to have confidence in your game, whether you are playing individually or for your team, so I have been able to play each team match with more confidence than I have had in the past.
USTA.com: You have always had a reputation as a leader on the court. Now in your senior year, how has your leadership role evolved?
Joanna Mather: I really do not feel like much has changed from my junior year to my senior year. We have the exact same team as we had my junior year, so everyone already knew what to expect and how to do things. I am lucky that I have been surrounded by a group of talented and determined athletes who all have pride in their tennis and want to work hard. This is why I have never really considered myself a "leader," but I have always wanted to be someone that my team can come to with any questions, concerns or problems.
USTA.com: You have two great coaches in Head Coach Roland Thornqvist and Associate Head Coach Dave Balogh. What have you learned from each of them?
Joanna Mather: Roland and Dave have both been great. Each of them brings something different to the table, as far as coaching style and personality. These differences complement each other, and all of my teammates and I could not be happier with the coaches we have. Dave has taught me a lot about doubles strategy and how to move on the doubles court, while Roland has taught me more about my singles game and being able to change direction of the ball.
USTA.com: As one of the top-ranked juniors in the nation, you were recruited by a number of top programs. Why did you select Florida?
Joanna Mather: I chose Florida because it has a great mix of athletics and academics. At the beginning of this year, we had five teams ranked No. 1 in the nation. The University of Florida is also ranked among the top-20 universities to graduate from. On top of all of this, I loved Roland and Dave, the campus and the weather. So, for me, it was an easy choice.
USTA.com: Did you ever think about going pro right from juniors, or did you always know you wanted to go to college? Was that a hard decision for you to make?
Joanna Mather: When I was younger, like many young players, I had professional aspirations and never really thought about going to college. However, the older I got, I realized that I did want to go to college.
USTA.com: What advice do you have for junior tennis players who want to play in college?
Joanna Mather: College is a great experience. It is a great way to mature as a person and as an athlete. You learn a lot about the game of tennis by having a coach on the court with you during matches, and I can personally say I feel my game has grown while being at college. The athletic experience you get during college is partially in your hands. You can ask your coaches for individual practice as much or as little as you want, as well as your trainer to work out with you as much or little as you want. If you are able to take ownership of your tennis, you have the tools to get better, while earning a college degree. It is a win-win situation.
USTA.com: As you head to the NCAA Team Championships, obviously as defending champs, you’ve got the bull’s eye on your back. How do you handle the pressure?
Joanna Mather: Being the defending NCAA champion, we know that every time we play we have a target on our backs and our opponents want to beat us very badly. Fortunately, as I said earlier, my whole team is very determined and competitive, and we want to win just as badly. We always expect people to play their best tennis against us, and we take it as a challenge and an opportunity to compete and get better.
USTA.com: Any aspirations to play professionally once your collegiate career is over?
Joanna Mather: I am going to give professional tennis a shot after college. I have played tennis my entire life and have more confidence in my game now than I have had in a long time, so I feel like I owe it to myself to try.
USTA.com: As a student-athlete, you don’t have a lot of free time, but when you get it, what do you like to do?
Joanna Mather: My favorite thing to do in my free time would probably be to sit on the couch with my roommate, Lauren Embree, and watch a "Law and Order SVU" marathon or "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." No I’m only kidding, although I really do enjoy that. I also like to read and do just about anything with my teammates – pool, mall, normal girl stuff.
USTA.com: What’s the best thing about college tennis and about Florida?
Joanna Mather: College tennis is great because it adds a team aspect to the individual sport of tennis. You always know when you are playing for a team that you have people who genuinely support you and want you to play your best. You make amazing friendships that will last a lifetime, and you have people there working hard and pushing you to work hard every day. Being at Florida is great because there are so many unbelievable athletes here. There are Olympians, world champions, national champions, everything. Being in this atmosphere inspires everyone here to do their best.