Feb. 10, 2015
Trailing 6-5 in a key doubles showdown against Ohio State, Julie Vrabel missed a volley as she and her doubles partner, Allison Miller, battled to try and help the University of Notre Dame women's tennis team gain a point against the Buckeyes during Sunday's match at the Eck Tennis Pavilion.
Two points later, Vrabel blasted a winner — and she and Miller were on their way to a 7-6 (8-6) victory that helped the Irish pick up the doubles point.
“It didn't bother her,” Notre Dame coach Jay Louderback said of Vrabel's ability to shake off adversity and deliver for the team. “She's great about that. If she misses a ball, she lets it go. It doesn't affect her next point. When you watch her play, she's under complete control of her shots the whole time. She's very confident. She doesn't let anything bother her. She got overruled on a tough ball in singles on a huge point — and she let it go.”
Vrabel shook off the tough out call in singles and rallied to knock off Ohio State's Ferny Angelez Paz, 6-4, 6-3.
Boosted by the two points to which Vrabel contributed, No. 19 Notre Dame downed No. 31 Ohio State, 4-3.
Louderback said Vrabel's mental toughness has allowed her to step up for an Irish team that was looking to replace three seniors from last season's starting line-up.
“Mental toughness is huge in college, because we play so many matches,” Louderback said. “We played Stanford Friday and turn around and play Ohio State (Sunday). Two ranked opponents in three days.
“It's a little like being a relief pitcher or a cornerback in football,” Louderback said of being able to shake off a tough point or a tough call. “You have to have a short memory, especially playing high. When you're in the top three, you have to have a short memory because you could easily lose every match, because everybody is so good in the top of the line-up. As you get into long matches, late in the year, kids get tired, and a lot of it is upstairs, it's in the head. When you have a kid who is tough mentally, like Julie, it's an advantage for them.”
Vrabel developed mental toughness fighting back from a shoulder surgery suffered when she was a high school star in Centreville, Virginia. The Irish junior underwent surgery and only played a few matches at the end of her freshman season.
As a sophomore Vrabel only played singles, but she shined with a 21-10 record at No. 6, including a 16-7 mark in dual matches. This season Vrabel is 7-6 overall and 3-2 in duals. Teamed with Miller she is 8-4 in doubles.
Vrabel said a mental edge is essential in tennis and that it played a huge role in her ability to get back on the court after her surgery.
“Tennis is mostly a mental sport,” Vrabel said. “Confidence was a big key to getting back to the sport. I hadn't played a match in over a year after my shoulder surgery.
“Coming out with the right mentality and hard work really paid off in getting back on the court,” Vrabel said. “It's been progressive, coming from playing only doubles, and then only singles, and then doubles and singles. I think playing both has given me a lot of confidence. I can see myself getting better from here on.”
Louderback said he saw Vrabel's mental toughness in play before she played in her first match for the Irish.
“In Julie's freshman year every day before practice she would be here early, doing her stretching,” Louderback said. “She really worked on strengthening her shoulder and it really paid off.
“Last year we didn't play her in doubles because we really needed her in the singles. There were times when she still had some soreness in her shoulder. She was playing such good singles for us we didn't want to risk it. In our top two doubles teams, three players were seniors, so we lost three-fourths of our top two doubles teams. For her to come in and step in and play two doubles has been very important. Her doubles play has been outstanding.”
Vrabel said Notre Dame's resources helped her come from dealing with the depths of injury to excel on the courts at the collegiate level.
“I talked to (Notre Dame sports psychologist Miguel A. Franco) before my first doubles match here as a freshman,” Vrabel said. “I was extremely nervous, having a crowd here and playing for a team. I had never played for a team before. I was always playing for myself. I felt a lot of pressure. Talking to him, he said, 'You need to play for yourself out there. Like it's you out there.' He really helped me come back to the game.”
Vrabel also uses an intellectual approach to her game.
“I'm not the biggest person out there,” said the 5-foot-6 Vrabel. “I don't play with a lot of power. A lot of my opponents at this level hit with a lot of pace, so I use their pace and try to move them around the court and try to get in when I can. I try to take a lot of balls that have veered and take time away from them.
“My serve used to be a big factor in the juniors. With shoulder surgery it was really tough to get my first serve in. I was always really nervous when I had to hit a second serve, but my serve has gotten a lot better. It's really helped my service games.”
Louderback has been impressed by Vrabel going from not playing singles as a freshman, to playing No. 6 singles as a sophomore, to now earning the No. 3 singles spot as a junior.
“She can do everything,” Louderback said of Vrabel's ability. “She has great touch, she hits great drop shots, she has good touch at the net and she can drop volley. The thing she's doing much better? She's not afraid to take balls out of the air. When she gets an opponent on the run they’ll put the ball up. She'll take it out of the air and be aggressive. A lot of players won't do that.”
Louderback said Vrabel uses exceptional strategy to gain the edge on opponents.
“Julie will hit solid serves, three or four points, and then she needs a big point and all of the sudden you'll see her crank one,” Louderback said. “She'll hit a big first serve. She's smart. She saves it. She doesn't use it all. She really can do everything.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent