Meet the best college tennis player you've never heard of
If you want to meet the best college tennis player you've never heard of, or even seen play, you need to head on through Atlanta taking Interstate 75 south.
Since you are in Atlanta, it's assumed you will be taking the Georgia Tech exit and heading a couple blocks west to visit the school that has been an ACC and national power in tennis for over a decade.
Ok, you will then go through Downtown Atlanta take I-20 east and connect on one of the roads that will take you to Athens, Georgia. Athens happens to be home to one of the best tennis facilities and women's tennis programs in the country.
Speeding down I-75, you need to pass the Georgia Tech exit, go a few miles south and exit right in the heart of Downtown Atlanta exit at Courtland Street, go a few blocks and you will find yourself on the campus of Georgia State University. Home of Aibgail Tere-Apisah and according to the athletic department staff at this growing urban school, "a place where things are happening."
How many of you have heard of her?
It doesn't matter, because with the results this junior from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea put up during the 2012 NCAA season by earning All-American status and compiling an impressive record that only included two losses. Those losses were nothing to be ashamed of as they were to Anya Morgina of South Carolina and to Florida's top player in Allie Will in the round of 16 of the NCAA Championships.
Yes, I said Papua New Guinea. Since Americans tend to be weak when it comes to world geography, it's an independent island nation in the Pacific, just north of Australia that gained independence from Australia in 1975. Not exactly a tennis hotbed and a frequent destination of college tennis coaches in America.
Tere-Apisah didn't stumble upon tennis by accident. Her parents are both certified tennis instructors in Papua New Guinea and she started playing at an early age.
"I was there every day since about three years old while all the other kids were being coached by my dad and practicing, I was usually on the side just hitting by myself," Tere-Apisah stated, "When I was six or seven I decided to join the groups and train with them."
After practicing and playing tournaments in Australia an the South Pacific, including the qualifying for the juniors at the Australian Open, Tere-Apisah made a side trip to the United States in 2009.
While getting coaching and training at the Hobson Performance Tennis Academy in Lawrenceville, Ga., prior to two tournaments, she talked with a former GSU student-athlete about the upstart tennis program at Georgia State.
"To be honest Georgia State was not really high on my list at first because the other schools contacting me were ranked higher," Tere-Apisah said, "It was a last-minute decision because I was leaning towards Texas A&M or Ole Miss, but in the end I wanted to be in a city."
The big city of Atlanta, and all of a sudden she was big fish in a small pond at Georgia State. Looking back, she said that was a good thing.
"I've kind of liked how it has worked out so far-- I'm working my way up and so is the team."
I'll say, Tere-Apisah is currently ranked No. 23 in the ITA preseason college singles rankings and that in some people's eyes, isn't giving her enough credit. Her big-time game is playing in the big city of Atlanta very well. She is the highest ranked women's college player in the state of Georgia, which is known for its storied tennis programs.
There is excitement surrounding the Georgia State tennis program as Tere-Apisah begins her 2012-13 campaign this weekend in an ITA sanctioned multi-school invitational that will be played out as an individual tournament.
With teams like Georgia Tech, South Florida and North Carolina State on the docket this weekend, Tere-Apisah is hoping to build on the success she had in the spring. I wondered if it made her believe she can play with the top talent in the country and now contend for, I'll say it -- a national title.
"It did, and now I feel like I have a chance to play with the top players in the nation and at that level," admitted the 20-year old student-athlete.
Tere-Apisah now knows that she can't sneak up on anyone and other college players, coaches and even the fans will be watching her closely.
Georgia State's sports communications assistant for women's tennis, Randy Lieberman remembers the reaction Tere-Apisah's run at the NCAA Championships in Athens generated.
"I was in the press box and there was buzz among the media members about Abby's play."
Lieberman nodded when I asked him if it was similar to a No. 16 seed leading a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
"I kind of like that, it's nice to know people are supporting me and looking out for me," said an appreciative Tere-Apisah. "People now come up to me and say they've been keeping up with me and you're doing such a nice job, so it makes me nervous and I don't want to let anybody down."
Tere-Apisah spent the summer in another big city, namely Chicago, where she worked on her game.
"I know I have things to work on," Tere-Apisah freely admits. "I need to be more mentally disciplined and I would like to make my serve more of an advantage."
She said she's always working on her fitness, but while in Chicago she said she treated herself to Chicago-style pizza and enjoyed seeing Wrigley Field and other sights in Downtown Chicago.
I know you hear this all the time, but as good as she is on the court, Tere-Apisah may be even a better teammate.
"Abby is the type of person that always thinks of other people first," says her head coach, Miha Lisac. "She's an outstanding person to have (on our team), whether she was our number one player or not."
Tere-Apisah is such a good teammate she even sat out the first weekend of play to give a few of the less experienced players on the Georgia State roster a chance to play against some smaller schools. She also knows that she has to pace herself as she will be playing individually in some upcoming national events.
Throughout the year, Tere-Apisah says her family will try and follow her progress from the South Pacific, but it isn't all that easy.
"The technology over there isn't quite as advanced, they get on the Georgia State website or I Skype with them on occasion."
Coach Lisac says with Tere-Apisah's play and attitude, it has created a ripple effect and other players on the team are feeding off of her presence.
"She's helped create an atmosphere that makes the other players want to go the extra mile and get better."
When asked if he could change one thing about his number one singles player, Lisac didn't hesitate.
"She's an incredibly humble person, sometimes too much," smiled Lisac, who has been with Georgia State for over a decade as a player and now coach. "Sometimes you want her to have a little bit of an ego, in the right way obviously."
"I just love that out team is really coming up," summed up Tere-Apisah. "I still get nervous, but it's exciting."
Imagine that, a tennis player without an ego. Things really are happening at Georgia State and Abigail Tere-Apisah is leading the way and setting the tone. Now you can't say you've never heard of her.
You can see her play September 21-24 as Georgia State hosts the Southern Shootout at the Sharon Lester Tennis Center at Piedmont Park in Atlanta. It's big-time college tennis, in the fall, in Atlanta.