On a summer day in 2012 at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, balls continuously struck the net like hailstones during a heavy storm. Players and coaches on the UGA women’s tennis team cringed at how dreadful freshman Silvia Garcia’s volleys were.
Mia King, one of Garcia’s teammates at the time, recalls thinking, “Oh my goodness, is this girl right here on our team?”
Considering where Garcia started, that she now enters the upcoming season as the team’s captain puts an unlikely end to an even more implausible journey. She returns as the lone senior poised to lead the Bulldogs to an NCAA title, a goal that has eluded her.
“Guess I’ve just been around for the longest time,” said Garcia, whose team is wrapping up its fall tournaments this weekend in Orlando, Fla. “I know everything that goes on around here.”
Volleys were not the only things foreign to Garcia when she first arrived in Athens, Ga.. A native of Madrid, Spain, she competed only in singles within the Madrid Tennis Federation. Team tennis, which includes doubles, was unfamiliar.
“In the beginning it was difficult because I knew nothing about college tennis,” said Garcia. “I felt like someone was always explaining to me a new rule or process every match.”
Additionally, Garcia had to deal with a language barrier. Her teammates observed that she was a naturally introverted person, so not being able to fully interact and express her opinions with them only presented a more difficult challenge.
At practices during the summer of 2012, King expected Garcia to remain at the baseline, while she moved forward to attack the net. But often both players would either be at the net or at the baseline.
“Being faced with that much adversity right off the bat must have been tough, but you never would have known from how Silv carried herself on and off the court,” said King. “If I were in her shoes, there is no way I’m making it through all that.”
Five experienced players — one senior, three juniors and one sophomore — were on the UGA women’s roster during Garcia’s freshman season.
“The 2012-13 season in particular was one that had a lot of great upperclassman mentorship,” said coach Jeff Wallace. “It truly made a difference in our team’s success when there were four freshmen coming into the program that year.”
In particular, Garcia meshed well with junior Kate Fuller. Her doubles abilities improved quickly. The key change for Garcia was her anticipation of ball placement, King said, which complemented the rest of her game.
Garcia and Fuller finished the season ranked 21st with a 26-4 record, but were briefly ranked as the No. 1 doubles team in the nation.Garcia’s teammates and coaches can’t recall any player improving as much as she did, and for it to happen as quickly either.
“Fuller really brought out the best in Garcia,” said Wallace. “The results showed the immediate impact Fuller had on Garcia’s play on the court, but it was her leadership that left a bigger mark on Garcia.”
Garcia continued her success the next two seasons, winning 58 singles matches and 54 doubles matches. She became known for having a calming and guiding force for her teammates, especially last season with the entry of five freshmen to the roster.
“She was always someone I knew I could turn to,” said sophomore Ellen Perez. “She really guided me through my freshman season, especially easing my nerves.”
At the start of last season, Garcia was paired with freshman Kennedy Shaffer. Shaffer recalls how her arms shook profusely at the start of the first match. Garcia understood first-game jitters, so she didn’t try to compensate for Shaffer’s nerves by overplaying. She played how she always did to allow Shaffer to calm down. They finished the season ranked No. 34.
“Silv shows great composure out there on the court,” said Shaffer. “It’s that composure that allows me to loosen up in order to play my game knowing I can trust that she’ll always be there to back me up.”
Despite the success of Garcia and her team last season, the Bulldogs fell short of capturing an NCAA title, losing 4-1 in the Final Four to UCLA. Garcia vividly remembered the final forehand gliding off teammate Caroline Brinson’s racket and drifting beyond the baseline.
“It was a tough blow to take because as a team we came out strong taking the doubles point,” Garcia said. “And for us to lose all the singles matches was extremely disappointing, but it only motivates me to just practice harder.”
With one last opportunity to prove she has always deserved her spot on UGA women’s tennis team, Garcia is ready to take on the leadership role as the team’s senior captain and end her collegiate career with an NCAA title.
“Her stepping up isn’t even a challenge because she’s been a great leader, great friend, and role model from the moment she stepped onto the Dan Magill tennis courts,” said Shaffer.
Minh The Nguyen is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.