By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – At the midpoint of Meghan Kelley’s college career, her world changed. In June 2017, Sara O’Leary took over as head coach of the University of Virginia women’s tennis team and hired Gina Suarez-Malaguti as her assistant.
O’Leary came to UVA from Davidson College, Suarez-Malaguti from NC State. If Kelley was unsure what to expect from her new coaches, any concerns she had soon vanished.
“I think that honestly it was probably the best thing that’s happened to me,” said Kelley, who’ll graduate this month with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs. “Both of them came in and really changed my life and really inspired me to love the game and love this team so much more. And it’s really changed my path for the future.”
The 5-7 Kelley, who’s from Falmouth, a town of about 11,000 residents in Maine, plays No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles for UVA. She’s ranked No. 23 nationally in singles and, with freshman Sofia Munera, No. 17 in doubles.
Kelley’s ascent in the Cavaliers’ program has been striking. As a freshman, she began the year playing No. 6 singles and later moved up to No. 4. She played No. 3 singles as a sophomore and for most of her junior season, too.
This season, she was named to the All-ACC first team. Her singles record is 24-12.
“I think it’s just a pretty cool turnaround,” Kelley said. “I climbed more than a hundred spots in the rankings from last year, and I put in a lot of work last summer – the whole team did — and I think just seeing that pay off is really rewarding.”
O’Leary said Kelley has “learned to look at her game in a new light over the past few years and understand that her improvement is a process. She has developed a growth mindset and has been willing to work on specific aspects of her game that may cause her at the time to take one step back, but eventually take two steps forward … Meghan has evolved in so many great ways as a player and person, and that is a testament to her character and the amazing effort she has put in during her time here at UVA.”
The NCAA tournament is next for Kelley and her teammates. In the first round, Virginia (17-8) meets Old Dominion (19-4) at 11 a.m. Friday in Columbia, S.C. The winner will face South Carolina (20-3), the tournament’s No. 4 seed, or North Florida (17-7) in the second round.
UVA edged ODU 4-3 in Charlottesville on March 28.
When the NCAA team tourney concludes in Orlando, Fla., Kelley’s season will continue there. For the first time, she was one of 64 players selected to compete in the NCAA singles tournament, and Kelley and Munera were among the 32 teams chosen for the NCAA doubles championships.
O’Leary trained with Kelley last summer and cherishes her memories of those sessions.
“We hit every day, twice a day,” O’Leary said. “It was hard work, but it was so much fun to spend that one-on-one time with her, work on different aspects in her game, get to know her better and see her game transform. To see her commitment every day to her tennis and to this team was really inspiring to me and something I will never forget.”
Kelley’s competitive playing days are drawing to a close, but she has no intention of giving up tennis. She’ll embark this summer on her coaching career, working with Jennifer Riester, a talented junior player who, like Kelley, came up in the MAC Tennis Academy in Manchester, Mass.
“I’ve known her for a while, and I’m real excited to have this opportunity,” Kelley said.
She’ll travel with Riester “to international tennis tournaments, the same ones that I competed in when I was in high school,” Kelley said. “So I’m really looking forward to that and kind of coming full circle. And then I’m trying to enter into college coaching in the fall, which I’m really excited about.”
Who knows where that will take her? “I want to maybe one day come back and coach at UVA,” Kelley said.
She didn’t arrive at Virginia in 2015 planning to pursue a career in coaching, but O’Leary and Suarez-Malaguti “have really inspired me,” Kelley said. “They’ve had such a long, lasting impact on me, and I really want the opportunity to give that back to other people. I’m really not done with tennis. I’m not pursuing tennis individually, but I’ve just loved the team atmosphere so much that I just want to continue to be a part of that as much as possible.”
O’Leary expects Kelley, a two-time team captain, to thrive in the coaching profession.
“We meet with our captains pretty regularly, so I have had many talks with Meghan about leadership and managing a team,” O’Leary said. “She leads by example, has the ability to connect with people, conducts herself in such a professional manner, and loves and understands the game of tennis. I have 100-percent confidence in her ability to coach, become a positive impact on her new team, and change people’s lives for the better, like she has done mine.
“I cannot imagine my first two years at UVA without Meghan. She has been such an integral part of this program, an incredible leader, teammate and captain. She led the charge in changing the culture of our program by building strong relationships with every one of her teammates, setting an example every day of professionalism, hard work and commitment. She has put her heart and soul into this program and made it so much better.”
Kelley and Erica Susi are the Wahoos’ only seniors. They were honored at a banquet last weekend, Kelley said, “and I was crying, per usual, but it really hasn’t hit me yet that it’s [almost] the end, which will probably make it worse when it does end, but I’m enjoying it for now.”
She graduated from high school in three years and was only 17 when she enrolled at UVA.
“I think it’s really been rewarding,” Kelley said of her time as a student-athlete at Virginia. “I’ve been able to form amazing relationships, and I think the opportunity to play on a big stage [in front of] a crowd next to teammates that I love, that’s what I’ll remember most from my whole experience.
“In the end, thinking back to where it started, playing tennis when I was 8, I would never have imagined being where I am now and the things I’ve accomplished, especially this semester. So I’m just really happy that all of my hard work has paid off.”
Away from the tennis courts, Kelley said, “Charlottesville, the town, as a whole has been amazing, more than I could have ever asked for, and a place that I really will call home forever. I just really enjoyed doing a lot of things around Charlottesville and around this town. I think there’s always so much to do, and everyone in the community is just so welcoming and kind.”
She laughed. “I wasn’t used to the South before I came here, and I think New Englanders are a little colder. So I was just blown away from the moment I got here.”