At the conclusion of the fall season, UF women’s tennis coach Roland Thornqvist struggled to find words to describe the success of freshman Brooke Austin.
In the Southeast End Zone Meeting Room of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Thornqvist stood at the podium in 10 seconds of silence.
Austin’s first season at the University of Florida has seen her win a title, reach the semifinals at a national tournament and become the top freshman in Division I Women’s Tennis.
Thornqvist sought to answer the question — was it Austin’s athletic talent or match-winning coaching that got her to the top in collegiate tennis?
Austin meets tennis
In Indianapolis, 6-year-old Austin said tennis just felt natural when she tagged along to her neighbor’s tennis lesson.
“I picked up a racket and started playing and just really liked it,” she said, “so I asked my mom to sign me up for lessons.”
Six years later, the preteen replaced a middle school classroom education and physical education class with online learning between constant tennis practice.
Her improvement was considerable and fast.
When high school came around, Austin played in the junior division of the U.S. Open several times and by her senior year, she was ranked No. 3 in the nation.
And on Nov. 12, 2013, Austin signed with Florida women’s tennis.
Though her family is an 800-mile plane ride northwest of Gainesville, she said they were happy she signed with the Gators.
“I’ve always tried to do it my own way, but they’ve always supported me in whatever I’ve decide to do,” Austin said.
On the Florida court
Austin began her career at UF during the summer when she won the 2014 ITF $10K Palmetto Pro Open in Sumter, South Carolina.
From there she traveled to San Diego, California, with all eight teammates to compete in the Riviera/ITA Women’s All-American Championships.
The 5-foot-6 freshman qualified for the national championships in November in both singles and doubles with her best friend and fellow freshman teammate Peggy Porter.
Austin won the consolation final in singles, and in Flushing, New York, reached the singles semifinals at the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships.
Entering one of the nation’s top tennis programs ranked No. 5 by the NCAA, Austin’s expectations were low, with little expectation for success in her first season with Florida.
“Honestly I just hoped to win one match, I was terrified,” Austin said. “That was my only goal.”
Her power is in the strike. A loud thump echos in the stadium after each hit Austin sends back to her competitors.
“I hit the ball really hard,” she said. “I play aggressive.”
But before each play, Austin struggles the most when she’s behind the baseline.
“Need to work on my serve,” she said. “It’s always been a work in progress.”
Thornqvist and assistant head coach Dave Balogh have focused her practices on improving her serve and movement on the court.
Thornqvist said his advice for Austin before each match is simple — go for your shots.
“When she does and when she gets to the ball, she hits a ball that’s pretty much unstoppable,” Thornqvist said.
Six days a week for two to three hours a day, Austin is serving, hitting and hitting again. And separate from these practices, the team will meet for an hour five days a week for conditioning workouts.
“Brooke physically has changed for the better,” Thornqvist said. “She’s stronger and more durable, and I think that alone has affected her game in a positive way.”
Friends who compete
Just after Austin committed to a life of tennis at 12 years old, she met Peggy Porter.
“The first time we actually played, she beat me 0 and 0, and I couldn’t stand her,” the UF women’s tennis player said. “I thought she was so scary, but then a couple years later we became best friends.”
Before Austin signed with Florida, there were other options in consideration. Northwestern, University of North Carolina and Georgia were still viable offers for her to play.
But once Austin heard Porter had signed with Florida, her decision was clear.
“She definitely influenced my decision to come here,” Austin said. “It was nice knowing someone on the team already.”
The friends have played both doubles together and singles against each other many times this season, and Brooke said it’s never fun.
Porter said when she plays Austin it’s like a marathon running around the court.
“She hits the ball so hard, it’s ridiculous, and she hits it early,” Porter said. “Playing her, you’re just running.”
The future in Brooke’s eyes
Austin first stepped on Florida’s blue clay with just raw talent and a Wilson racket.
Now with her first season behind her, the Indiana-native has surpassed all her playing expectations and calls the Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex a much warmer, second home.
Post-college, Austin hopes to play professional tennis.
“There are lots of things that have to be set in place for that to happen, but I’d like to do that for a little bit,” she said.
For now Thornqvist is still weighing his coaching ability on the freshman superstar.
“We knew (she) was really good and (she) got better,” Thornqvist said. “Does that make me look good?”
Follow Mary Francis on Twitter @_maryfrancis