Imagine walking onto a tennis court, stepping up to the service line, bouncing the ball a few times, taking a deep breath and preparing to serve. Now also imagine that this is the first round of the NCAA tournament, and you’re playing a doubles match with a partner you have only competed with twice before. For sophomore Ana Cristina Perez and senior Lauren Yoon, this was their reality.
Around the middle of their season last year, the two were paired up to play doubles together. A year that saw COVID-19 almost shut down yet another sports season was also the year when Perez and Yoon emerged as a formidable doubles pair that posted a 4-1 record en route to the women’s team’s eighth national championship.
However, before Perez and Yoon could enjoy any success, they first had to be partnered together.
At the start of the season, head coach Amy Bryant had locked in the team’s first two doubles pairings, but the third and final spot was up for grabs.
Yoon explained that the pandemic positively impacted the search for the third doubles pairing, as the uncertainty that surrounded last year’s season provided the coaches even more freedom to test which players fit well together.
“Everyone’s a good player, but there’s something about doubles that you have to make sure that players click together,” Yoon said. “So at the beginning … we did not have a season, [Coach Bryant] was playing around, and then [Perez and I] played together a lot during practice and just worked.”
Despite being crowned national champions at season’s end, their success as a duo was not immediate.
“It was really tough to become a solid doubles team,” Perez said. “But finally winning and seeing results [showed that] the process paid off. It was very satisfying and enjoyable.”
As they spent more time on the court together during practice, it became clear the duo had good chemistry — both physically and their mental approach to the game. In Perez and Yoon’s case, their distinct playing styles complemented one another.
“You cannot put two people [together] who play the same game because then you will not have that variety that should come with a team,” Perez said. “Lauren is very aggressive and really good at finishing the points off at the net, and I like to build the point[s] so that she can finish [them].”
A good doubles pair also needs to have compatible mindsets. In singles, a poor mindset is self-contained; but in doubles, one player’s attitude, whether positive or negative, affects the other’s.
From the first time Perez and Yoon started playing together, they felt comfortable speaking their mind to each other. This helped them perform better in practice and in eventual matches because each partner can notice when her teammate’s head is not in the right place and remind her to concentrate on the task at hand.
“We help each other keep grounded and focused,” Yoon said. “If I get too angry, Ana’s like, ‘No, let’s get back into it,’ and if Ana is thinking about something else, I’m like, ‘Alright, let’s bring it in.’”
These differing play styles worked well in practice and ultimately led to coaches settling on Perez and Yoon for the third and final doubles pairing. Despite having the traits of a good doubles team, they struggled in their first couple matches. After not being paired up for the team’s first four matches of the season, Perez and Yoon finally competed together on April 16 against Georgia Gwinnett College, the top ranked National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school in the country — a match in which they suffered a 5-7 defeat. Their next opportunity came exactly two weeks later against the same doubles team they had just lost to. Perez and Yoon played a closer match, but ultimately lost 7-8 (3-7) in a tiebreak.
Although these defeats were certainly challenging for Perez and Yoon, they remained confident in their abilities, and as a result of playing against tough competition, each gained valuable knowledge of how the other likes to play.
“At the beginning, it was kind of messy,” Yoon said. “[Our play] was a little all over the place. And then once we started predicting each other’s moves, the puzzle pieces fell into place [right in time for] nationals.”
When the NCAA tournament began, the duo took off. In round one, they logged their first win together by defeating Rhode Island College by a score of 8-0. The domination continued into the second round, where Perez and Yoon won 8-1 before going on to win two of their next three matches, culminating in an impressive 8-4 victory in the championship.
“It was awesome,” Perez said. “We were in our mode, and we were comfortable. We enjoyed it, and it all pieced together and led to a game where we could have fun and also be focused and win it.”
Now, with a successful last season in the rearview mirror, Perez and Yoon will wait to see if they are paired together once again. Currently, Perez and Yoon are the only duo on the team that competed in each NCAA tournament game in which both partners are returning. Whether they are paired together again or not, Perez and Yoon indicated one way their experience playing together can help their teammates: confidence.
“I think our experience gives us a lot of confidence knowing that we’ve been through a season together,” Yoon said. “If we get paired up with someone else, we will have that confidence to help guide [our] partner because we’ve played through nationals.”
Perez and Yoon share the same perspective on success, expressing that wins and losses are not everything. Perez credited the book “The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive,” which the entire team is currently reading, for changing how she views achievement.
“It talks about different orientations and philosophies athletes have,” Perez said. “We’re discussing a part of the book that talks about a point of view that focuses on success or a point of view that focuses on enjoyment. I feel that my personal success should result from my enjoyment and happiness playing the sport, and those do not come from wins or losses.”
Yoon also said the book has shifted her view of success away from a more goal-oriented mindset that she had her freshman year, and she now wants to soak up every minute of her final season.
“My main goal is to have fun even if I do not make it into the lineup,” Yoon said. “[If I am] training hard, being present in the moment and enjoying practice with my teammates, I cannot lose in that situation.”
Andrew Feld (23C) is from Marietta, Georgia, completing a joint major in human health and economics along with a minor in Earth and atmospheric science. He is a former Emory Baseball player, and in addition to writing for the Wheel, he is a Vice President of the Talks branch in TableTalk. If he’s not working out or playing basketball, Feld is likely watching his longtime favorite New Orleans Saints suffer another playoff heartbreak.