May 26, 2010

By Andy Johnston
Special to NCAA.com

ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia Tech's Irina Falconi insists she doesn't put much thought into the fact that she's the top seed for the singles draw of the NCAA Division I Tennis Championships.

"It's just a number up there," she said.

OK, that's true, but other numbers prove she's worthy of that rank.

Falconi defeated Vanderbilt's Jackie Wu 6-4, 6-1 in the first round at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on Wednesday, pushing her winning streak to 21 consecutive matches and improving her record to 38-2.

"Today was a good day," Georgia Tech coach Brian Shelton said. "It was a good start for her. She's playing good tennis. I think if she just trusts herself and believes, she knows she can beat anyone here. But she can also lose, so she needs to be prepared and ready to go."

Falconi, a sophomore, will play Northwestern's Samantha Murray in the second round after Murray defeated California's Marina Cossou 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. Falconi also will team with Sasha Krupina to play the Stanford duo of Hilary Barte and Lindsay Burdette in the first round of doubles on Thursday. The singles event started with 32 matches on Wednesday and wraps up on May 31.

Falconi was the MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and the Yellow Jackets were seeded 14th for the team tournament, but were upset by Mississippi, 4-0, in the second round and failed to make the Sweet 16.

That meant Falconi could only practice during the final four rounds of the team tournament. She arrived in Athens on Monday and saw part of Stanford's national title win over Florida.

"I think it's always a little tough to see all those other teams out there and wishing your team could have been there, but we had a great season and the girls are still supporting me all the way through," she said. "We're still a team. It doesn't matter whether they're in Atlanta and I'm Athens. We're still close."

She didn't have much trouble with Wu.

Wearing Georgia Tech's always fashionable gold shoes, Falconi served for the match, winning four consecutive points for the victory. She hit a perfectly placed drop shot to go up 40-0 and finished off Wu with a cross-court winner.

"I thought both players were feeling it out early," Shelton said. "First-round jitters. Once (Falconi) got moving forward and started to attack, I think she settled in pretty well. Irina plays an attacking style and so, I was glad to see her finish off the match coming forward.

"That's the way you want to finish, going after your serve, moving forward to the net and finishing with your volleys. She's really good at it. She just has to trust herself and keep coming in."

Falconi learned to play on courts throughout New York City, often beating the guys and adults who challenged her. The family moved to Florida when she was 14 and her game blossomed. She was the top-ranked juniors player in the country before signing with Georgia Tech, where she was All-America as a freshman.

"It's difficult in this league, or any league, to be the dominant player, but to win at the clip she's won at is pretty special," Shelton said. "It's hard to see that in advance. How people deal with success and how they deal with failure tells you a lot about them. She's dealt with both very well in her two years here at Georgia Tech."

Falconi said she will continue to approach each match with caution because of her ranking. She knows her opponents will be out to knock off the top seed and she doesn't want to be caught unaware.

"Any given day the best players in the world - Federer, Nadal - they can get beat by an unranked player," Falconi said. "I think it's definitely a result of my work throughout the season, and I think all those girls are fighting for the top spot, but it's just a matter of playing tennis out there."