After helping Georgia defeat Texas A&M to win the 2023 SEC tournament, Mai Nirundorn is turning her attention to the NCAA tournament, which begins this Friday in Athens. Nirundorn, a native of Bangkok, Thailand, spoke recently about her background in tennis, her relationship with her doubles partner, Guillermina Grant, and the early-morning workouts that contributed to the team’s success this season.
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Q: You were born in the U.S., moved to Thailand, then moved back to the U.S. to come to Athens. Did you always know you would move back to the U.S. for college tennis?
A: Yeah, it was for sure always something on the back of my mind. My mom actually played college tennis for Eastern Michigan, so she knew how it works here and stuff. And, I wanted to get a good education while playing my sport.
Q: What was it like competing in major amateur tournaments like Wimbledon and the U.S. open?
A: It was pretty cool, because you get to see all of the pros playing there with you, and it’s like you’re a part of the tournament. You’re right next to the people you grew up watching all the time, so it was really cool.
Q: How do you think the ITF prepared you for NCAA tennis?
A: I feel like it’s pretty similar in a sense like, competition there is really tough. I feel like it’s about the same as NCAAs. But, playing in the ITF, I think it’s more individual. Like, you play for yourself. But, coming here into college, it’s a lot more fun because you get to play as a team and your teammates are your sisters, so it’s more fun.
Q: Last year, UGA lost to Texas A&M in the SEC tournament. But this year, UGA avenged that loss by defeating Texas A&M to win the SEC tournament. How exciting was that to claim redemption?
A: Yeah, I mean, it feels really good to get some redemption this year. Last year, of course, we were really upset that we lost. But this year, I think that we were really motivated because we knew it does not feel good to lose. So, I think everyone was more motivated this year, we worked a lot harder.
Q: Was there any new element of the team that led to more focus, or was it all internal for the team?
A: I think we focused a lot more about playing for each other this year. I know last year, we didn’t do 6 a.m.’s, but this year, our coach really wanted to push us more. So, we started doing 6 a.m. running in the fall. It was really tough, but in the end it was worth it.
Q: You and Guillermina Grant seem to have great chemistry on the court. What makes that relationship so strong?
A: I think it has a lot to do with our relationship off the court. Me and GiGi are really close, we get along really well, so I think that translates on the court. Then, it’s just a really easy transition from that.
Q: You and Grant gave Texas A&M’s Mia Kupres and Mary Stoiana their first doubles loss of the season, what did you two do in order to end their unbeaten season?
A: We played them in the regular season, and it was really close. I think we had five deuce points that we lost, but we lost 6-3. So, we knew if we were able to get those deuce points then we would have a shot of winning. I think that this time we just focused on each and every single point, and focused on sticking together and playing together.
Q: Looking forward toward the NCAA championships, what is one thing you truly want to focus on perfecting for that tournament?
A: I think we’re just gonna continue practicing harder. I think the SEC tournament was one of the best matches we’ve played so far, so I think if we continue working hard, we’ll continue to improve. And hopefully, win the NCAAs.
Q: What advice would you give to somebody outside of the U.S. with plans to move to the states for NCAA tennis?
A: I would say, just go for it! If you truly want it, you can get a good education while playing the sport that you love. So, it’s a win-win. And it’s so much fun because you get to play alongside your teammates, and it’s not as lonely on the court as it is playing in the junior leagues.
Aiden Whitehead is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.