By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal
The girl with the “really country-sounding Southern accent” happens to be the best player on the University of Memphis tennis team.
The Fulton native may get a hard time from her teammates and coach for the way she talks, but when it comes down to actual performance on the court, boy, are they glad to have her on the team.
“I learned to change it whenever I would talk to certain professors who didn’t have Southern accents like that,” Courtney Collins said of her diction, actually showing no signs of having a true Southern accent in a phone interview earlier this week. “When I get tired and stuff, it gets really bad.”
With a team featuring three European players, coach Lee Taylor Walker relied on Collins the most to relay information and messages to the rest of the team.
The 20-year-old Collins will soon find herself in another country, trying to communicate with people whose primary language is completely different than English.
Collins will be representing the United States in next month’s World University Summer Games in Shenzhen, China. She will be playing both singles and doubles.
“I’m anxious,” said the rising junior, who is leaving the U.S. for the first time. “I don’t know about being nervous, but I’m really excited.”
For being a “program changer,” a trip to China is Collins’ reward for an already stellar collegiate career. She earned an Intercollegiate Tennis Association national ranking (116th in singles) and All-Conference USA first-team honors at this past season’s end, and has compiled a 35-15 singles record through two seasons.
“I think Courtney leads by example,” Walker said. “She plays at a high level. She really competes with the best players in the country. With Courtney beating national-ranked players, that kind of rubs off on the others.”
Collins certainly had her options of where to play tennis in college. She could have played collegiately at Louisville, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ohio State, Ole Miss or Tennessee, just to name a few.
When it came time to make a decision, Courtney already had a level of familiarity with the Memphis program. She had been training in the junior ranks under former University of Memphis player and coach, Phil Chamberlain, at The Racquet Club of Memphis.
So, Walker, having played for Chamberlain at the University of Memphis before becoming the Lady Tigers’ women’s head coach in 2007, eventually meet Collins at The Racquet Club and a solid line of communication was initiated.
That was all fine and dandy, but Collins, a top 50 college prospect in the country, according to tennisrecruiting.net, needed more of a reason to commit to a program that never had an All-Conference USA first-team selection prior to her enrollment.
“A lot of the recruiting process had to do with Courtney just wanting to be another good player on a good team or wanting to go somewhere and be special and be a program changer,” Walker said.
In other words, says Walker, Collins could have gone to a major program elsewhere, but could very well be stuck in a situation where the head coach didn’t have a whole lot of time to work with her. She would be in the middle of the pack and not be the face of a program that is on the verge of being really competitive.
“She’s had a lot of opportunities here that she probably wouldn’t have gotten at other places,” the coach said about Collins playing for the Lady Tigers. “It takes a special person to be in that situation and want to be a program changer, and we’re thankful she wanted to do it and her family wanted her to do it.
“We’ve been able to build a close relationship. Hopefully, the next two years we’ll see that she really changed the program. I believe we’re about to embark on some special stuff at Memphis.”
And that starts – or has continued – with Collins. Before Collins arrived on campus, Ashley Murdock may have been the lone Lady Tigers player to hold the belief that she can beat anyone in the country.
“Before, there wasn’t that expectation that ‘I can beat anybody in the country,’” Walker said of the Memphis program. “Of course, we all think we need to respect everyone in the country, but the belief wasn’t there that we can beat this team or that team.
“Every semester we get one more person believing. This upcoming year we got everybody on the team thinking like that.
“Courtney started that thinking and it soon became an afterthought.”
So going back to Collins’ original decision on what college program to play for, apparently, she didn’t have to give it too much thought.
“There were definitely some other schools recruiting me,” Collins said. “It came down to Lee’s (Walker’s) coaching style and where he wanted the program to be in a couple of years.
“It really wasn’t a tough choice. It turned out to be an easier decision than I thought it would be.”
The Lady Tigers posted a 16-10 record this past season, the program’s first winning season in quite some time and its first under Walker’s direction.
“The last two years we have changed it around and got it where we needed it,” said Collins.
While a pro career has its fair share of uncertainty and uneasiness, Collins has been able to map out what she wants to do in the classroom for the next three years.
“I definitely want to play right after I graduate,” she said about playing professionally.
The thing is, however, the C-USA All-Academic player wants to do it after she earns her master’s degree in exercise and sports science in 2014. She’s set to complete her bachelor’s degree requirements in exercise and sports science next summer.
“I think if she wants to she can,” Walker said about a future pro career for his star player. “She’s already at a high level. I think she’s going to have to improve on a lot of things, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that.”
According to Walker, the best players in NCAA Division I tennis are comparable to Women’s Tennis Association players ranked 300 through 800 in the world.
“Hopefully, we will get her at a level before she graduates where her professional ranking is already kind of high,” Walker said.
To prepare for the professional ranks, Collins has been competing in pro and semi-pro events. She partnered with Memphis teammate Mariya Slupska to play in the main doubles draw of February’s Regions Morgan Keegan Championships/Cellular South Cup WTA Tour event in Memphis.
This week, she’s participating in The Heartland Clinic USTA Classic in St. Joseph, Mo., and advanced to the second round of the main singles draw before week’s end.
“I think she can play as long as she wants to. She can play into her 30s,” Walker said.
If Collins’ health holds up – she’s been hobbled by stress reactions in her shin – the 5-foot-7 player has the work ethic and drive to play beyond her college years. Her freshman year, she battled a bad ankle and a bad wrist.
“Last summer, I was training pretty hard,” said Collins, who indicated this week that’s she’s about 90 percent health-wise, getting closer to full strength each day. “The main thing was that I was overtraining. I needed to pull back a little bit.
“That’s what was said to cause the stress reactions.”
For someone whose speech may have sounded slow due to her accent, her speed on the court is the direct opposite of slow.
“She is really fast,” said Walker, who recently gave Collins permission to borrow the program’s ball-hitting machine and take it to Mississippi. “She does some things unorthodox.
“She’s a really fast player, really athletic and very competitive. She finds a way if things aren’t perfect.”