The tennis team has been challenged early in the season, going up against highly ranked opponents such as No. 2 University of Texas and No. 15 Baylor University. With the top players of these teams being the best in the country, lone senior and captain Nidhi Surapaneni has faced some of the biggest challenges she has ever experienced in her career.
Surapaneni began her journey with the team in 2017, choosing North Texas over other schools because of the chemistry she felt with the team and the coaching staff.
“For me, relationships are very important,” Surapaneni said. “I spend most of my time at the courts. I did not want to go to a place where I did not feel comfortable.”
Head coach Sujay Lama first heard of Surapaneni through a fellow coach, who mentioned her to Lama after realizing their team did not have an opening. Lama then did his due diligence scouting her and saw a player who had the potential to become something special, despite the flaws he saw.
“The first time I saw her play, I realized she had a very well-rounded game,” Lama said. “Her very high tennis IQ, good hands and touch around the court stood out. However, she definitely needed some work physically in order to become fitter, faster and stronger.”
Over the last three years, this is exactly what she has done. As the health program coordinator for tennis, coach Rodrigo De Almeida has played a huge part in Surapaneni’s development. He believes that her maturity and willingness to put in the work has been what has allowed her to improve through her years in college tennis.
“Nidhi has shown great interest in developing her speed and agility on the court,” Almeida said. “It is something that Nidhi and I felt that if she would take it to the next level, she could become a better player and it has.”
While physically Surapaneni has shown great growth, Lama believes that her mentality during a match has been her biggest improvement.
“For the first year and a half, she was very tentative,” Lama said. “She would not trust herself in a match. We knew she had the big forehand, but whenever it came down to the big moments she was not willing to pull the trigger. She would play not to lose versus playing to win.”
This all changed during Surapaneni’s sophomore year against Florida International University in the C-USA quarterfinals. With the match score at 3-3, everything came down to Surapaneni playing at the No. 5 position. With all the pressure on her, she was able to win a tight three-set match to advance the Mean Green into the semifinals of the tournament.
Lama believes that this match was the turning point for Surapaneni’s mental game.
“I think that was a huge mental breakthrough for her, where she started believing in herself,” Lama said. “We worked on her footwork all these years, but her biggest breakthrough was more mental than physical.”
This year, however, may require another one of these breakthroughs. Surapaneni is currently shouldering the responsibilities as captain and a mainstay in the top two of the line-up. She has had a somewhat strange and difficult season, only winning one singles match so far.
An example of this comes from Surapaneni’s match earlier this season against then-No.17 Baylor. She got off to a hot start against her opponent, going up a break 5-3 in the first set. However, she then proceeded to lose the first set and the match 7-5, 7-6(4).
“I probably lost a bit of concentration at 5-3,” Surapaneni said. “I was watching that first set and I saw myself make a couple of loose errors. I said to myself ‘what the hell did I just do?’”
This kind of unsatisfying match has been the theme of Surapaneni’s year so far. While she plays well in these matches, she has not found a way to win them yet and she is ready to break the trend.
“I know I’m there, I know I’m winning, I just need to actually win the match,” Surapaneni said. “Not the feeling of ‘Oh, I should have won that’ or ‘I had my chances to win.’”
Despite understanding her frustration, Lama believes that her progress is worth something and that the results will soon follow.
“Our goal is not what happens in January and February, our eyes are on April, the conference championship,” Lama said. “For us, every week is a building block.”
Featured Image: Senior captain Nidhi Surapaneni hits the ball during practice on Feb. 21, 2021. Image by Zach Del Bello