Williamston native and University of North Carolina freshman Sara Daavettila chatted with State Journal sports reporter James L. Edwards III about life on campus, being ranked the No. 2 singles player in the country, being a part of one of the nation’s best programs, and her future in the sport. Below are the excerpts from an interview with Daavettila, who won two Division 3 state championships at Williamston High School after being homeschooled and participating in the United States Tennis Association (USTA) circuit.
JAMES EDWARDS: Based on conversations we’ve had in the past, I know going from being homeschooled to Williamston High School (sophomore and junior year) was something that you were glad that you did. Did that help you prepare for life on a big-time campus? Was that one of the reasons you and your family decided to do that?
SARA DAAVETTILA: “I wouldn’t be here, probably, without that. I actually went to normal school my sophomore year, now that I think about it. I never went full-time, I only did half days. I really wanted to play for my high school team — it seemed like a lot of fun and I really wanted to help my high school team out. They were willing to be flexible with me about that.
“I really enjoyed it. I wanted to experience what school was like. Most of my friends went to school. I thought it would be a good social experience. …I had to go back to being homeschooled my senior year. I only had a couple of classes because I wanted to do some of the pro-circuit events. They were during the week, so I couldn’t miss that much school.”
Q: You won two state titles in high school (38-0 record over two years), and, now, you’re a freshman in college and the No. 2-ranked player in the country. Did you expect to have this much success so fast? Is it common for freshman to come in and make that type of impact?
A: “I definitely did not expect to do as well as I’ve done. Honestly, I didn’t think I did that great in the fall, but it turns out that the rankings said otherwise. Definitely, I’m very happy with my success so far.
“A big part of it is just enjoying it and keeping my expectations low on those kind of things. I don’t want that kind of pressure. I’m just enjoying my time here.”
Q: Aside from the individual success, you’re part of a team that’s ranked No. 2 in the country. Was the decision to go to UNC everything you expected? More? Obviously, you had familiarity with them, but did you know it would be like this your first year?
A: “It definitely exceeded my expectations. I only came on a visit here twice, and it’s hard to know what to expect when you come here twice for visits and everything. But, as soon as I got here, I just fell in love with everything. It felt like a really family. I’ve grown up so much, my teammates have become my best friends, my coaches … I can go to them for anything. It’s definitely exceeded my expectations.”
Q: How influential has your mother (a former Western Michigan tennis player) been in your career so far? Did she push you at a young age, or did she let you find the sport on your own?
A: “Well, from as far back as I can remember, I always played tennis. …She coached me for most of my life, obviously. She was always there for me whether I won, lost. Going to a tournament, it was just us two. It definitely grew us closer, which I’m thankful for. I call her before my matches here when I’m nervous or if I need to talk through something. …She came (here) over the weekend. She drove to Yale, to Connecticut, for our national indoors. …She’s definitely still involved.”
Q: What was the moment, or match, this year that made you feel like you could make an impact your first year?
A: “It didn’t really take a match to do it. It was more mentally that I thought I could. Helping the team, being more of a leader, being positive, I never really thought about it as a match or something specific. I knew I could impact the team in some way, but I didn’t know which way.”
Q: Have your expectations, goals, grown with the success that you’ve been having?
A: “For sure. The transition, I feel like I’ve handled the transition better than I thought I would. I definitely created some goals. The ACC’s is definitely one — to win that for the team. NCAA’s, both teams and individually, are big goals. As well as becoming an All-American. That would be awesome.”
Q: You guys face Michigan, at home, on April 6. Is that something you’re looking forward to? Any ties over there?
A: “A lot of my junior rivalries and friends are on that team. I’m very excited for them.”
Q: What’s been your long-term goal with the sport? Have you only just wanted to play Division I tennis, or have you wanted to make a living out of it? What’s been the ultimate goal since you first gripped a racket?
A: “I knew I wanted to play college tennis. That was always the goal. As the success started coming when I was younger, I started questioning where I wanted to go, and do I want to get to that next level and who’s going to take me there? I’m going to take the sport wherever it gets me, and I’m going to try the circuit after college.”
Q: Like I said, I’m not sure how well freshman usually perform. What’s the reception been like from your teammates?
A: “Coming into a school that’s No. 2 in the country and has been in the top 5 for a while, and me being the No. 1 preseason freshman coming in, everyone respects each other. …Everyone was really encouraging about any success that anyone has had, because everyone is good. I thought that was really cool.”
Q: In the offseason, are you coming back home to train or do you stay in Carolina? How does that work?
A: “There really is no offseason. We play in fall and spring, we obviously have winter break, but during the summer I’m going to travel and play some pro events — maybe travel with the USTA team. Then spending some time at home with my family.”
Q: What’s been the best part about your journey into college so far? Has any of it been surreal?
A: “I didn’t realize how busy a student-athlete is. I’ve always been told, but the stories are true. I have my 6:45 (a.m.) workouts. Between tennis, school, homework, doing stuff with my team, I really don’t have much time for anything else. Although, I wouldn’t be wanting to do anything else either. So far, it’s been one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. I’m having a lot of fun, really enjoying tennis. I’m able to do what I love at a great school, and it’s been a surreal experience.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.