By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
OXFORD, Miss. –
As the Florida women’s tennis team captured its fifth NCAA Championship last spring, the headlines tended to gravitate towards the squad’s dynamic then-sophomore duo of Lauren Embree and Allie Will, but there was one key freshman who was making waves behind the scenes.
Enter Alexandra Cercone, from Seminole, Fla., whose connection to tennis seems ordained from birth.
The daughter of Maria (Paris) Cercone, the University of Pittsburgh’s all-time singles career leader who works as a Tennis Director at Bardmoor Golf and Tennis Club, and the sister of Nicole, who played at Florida State, Cercone shined for the Gators as a rookie, winning a team-best 37 singles matches, and was the only athlete on her team to complete and win all four singles matches at the NCAA Championship site.
It was then, in the midst of hoisting the team trophy, that 11th-year head coach Roland Thornqvist knew that his young player was the ultimate competitor.
“It was a process a little bit last year, but by the end of the year, I thought she was extremely fit and really tough,” Thornqvist said. “She is an incredible competitor. She was the only one to win four matches for us at Stanford last year and to be able to do that there as a freshman tells you all that you need to know about the kind of competitor that she is.”
Cercone, who was the first to complete her singles match in Florida’s 4-0 win against Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals on Friday, has seen herself grow over the past two seasons.
“My freshman year, I came in and had no idea what to expect,” Cercone said. “I remember last year at this tournament was not the best performance for me personally. But I think getting the experience over the last year-and-a-half has really taught me how to handle myself with my demeanor and attitude on the court, and then how to cheer on the other girls and work as a team.”
Being a good teammate has become one of Cercone’s strengths; so is her mental approach to the game. It’s something Thornqvist feels can be attributed to her strong tennis background.
“I think Alex is really cerebral,” Thornqvist said. “She thinks a lot, sometimes too much, maybe. That serves her well, particularly under pressure. She can find pressure points with her opponents and really hammer away at that. She did that marvelously last year. I think Maria Cercone has done a great job with Alex, teaching her how to play the game. She is coachable, which I really appreciate also.”
Cercone agrees, saying that she has found ‘playing smart’ to be one of her greatest assets on the court.
“I would say that I use my head when I play,” Cercone said. “I think analytically when I play. I think about everything and I think that is one of my best weapons. I am able to adapt and think about what’s going on out on the court.”
In beginning her sophomore campaign, things didn’t come as easy for Cercone. Her game didn’t feel as natural, but her perseverance is what has allowed her to battle through that.
“She has gone through a different process this year where it wasn’t coming naturally to her,” Thornqvist said. “She wasn’t feeling it in the beginning of the spring. She really had to work her way to start to feel the ball naturally again. A lot of players can’t do that, but Alex stayed with it and now I’m thinking that it’s really starting to come to her.”
The experience of last year’s NCAA Championship gave Cercone the confidence she needed to battle through adversity earlier this year.
“It felt good to be contributing to the team,” Cercone said. “I won all my singles matches out there and just doing that felt good. I was proud of myself, but I was proud in that I could contribute a point in every singles match for our team and help my teammates out. What’s good about that experience is that I know that I can do that kind of thing – play under pressure and be depended on.”
In a broader sense, last season’s national championships inspired Cercone to continue striving to improve.
“It helped me in the fact that when you succeed in that way, it just pushes you to do bigger and better things,” Cercone said. “We did this great thing and now we’re trying to do it again. That inspires me to add an even tougher goal for myself personally. It definitely pushes us to work much harder and do bigger things.”
Cercone is 15-3 this season in dual match singles competition and, while she may be playing a little under the radar, that’s a place that’s just fine for her.
“I try not to think about that kind of stuff,” Cercone said. “I just go out every day in practice and take it day by day, really. Sometimes being under the radar can be a good thing. I think when you play somebody and you don’t know who they are and don’t know their past successes, you don’t put as much pressure on the match. So, if I have a good record in the past and my opponent isn’t aware of that, then it can be helpful because they may not be prepared.”
Thornqvist agrees, saying that Cercone has made the most of her current role.
“She has [flown under the radar],” Thornqvist said. “Quite a few of them have. That is just the nature of the beat on this team when you have players like Lauren and Allie at the top. They’re among the five best players in the country. If you handle it the right way, then it is a good thing and I think Alex has.”
As far as Thornqvist is concerned, the best is yet to come from Cercone.
“Everybody loves her,” Thornqvist said. “She is a really good competitor, very smart and a great team player. Honestly, I don’t think she’s even as close to being as good as she can be. She has got a lot of up-side and has paid quite a bit of attention to her game.”