Since coming to Utah from Southern California three years ago, Elizabeth Ferris has enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, career for the Utah tennis team.
She's been the No. 1 player throughout most of her career, but she's played for mediocre teams and compiled a winning record against a so-so nonconference schedule.
However, things have changed dramatically in Ferris' senior season.
Under first-year coach Mat Iandolo, the Utes are defeating ranked teams for the first time in years, and last week earned their own ranking. And Ferris recently won the biggest match of her career, defeating the No. 1 player in college tennis.
Ferris upended Arkansas' Aurelija Miseviciute 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 in late January to give the Utes their lone point against a tough Razorback team.
"It was one of the best matches I've ever played," said the 21-year-old Ferris. "I don't know if a lot of people thought I could win, but I had this strange feeling like, 'I can win this match.' Self-belief obviously had a huge role in that."
Ferris really had no reason to be confident going into the match, considering that she had lost to Miseviciute "badly" as she put it, 6-2, 6-0 just two months earlier in the quarterfinals of a tournament Miseviciute eventually won.
"I was smoked," Ferris said. "She's a great player, and I was a bit overwhelmed when I played her the first time. I felt I had to be perfect and had to be a different player than I really was."
So when the Utes met the Razorbacks in the first dual match of the spring season last month, Ferris entered the match with a different attitude.
"I came into the match saying, 'I'm just going to play how I can play, and hopefully that will be good enough to win,"' she said. "I think she came in really cocky and didn't give me the respect I deserved. The crowd was really into it, and it was really exciting to win."
Ferris came to Utah from Anaheim, Calif., where she was a top junior player almost from the time she started playing at age 7. She could have gone to a nearby school such as UC-Irvine or Long Beach State, and she defeated several players that ended up at places such as UCLA, USC and Stanford.
Rather than live at home in Orange County, she wanted to experience college life and "loved" her visit to Utah, where she bonded with assistant coach Ruth Ann Allen and was impressed with the Eccles Tennis Center.
It's hard to single out one strength of Ferris' game on the court, but you can say it's the mental side where Ferris excels in matches.
"Everyone can hit a forehand and backhand we're all good in Division I college tennis," she said. "The mental part of my game is most important staying calm, not getting nervous and believing in myself. You see so many good players, and they don't beat the people they should beat because they just don't have it up there."
Coach Iandolo agrees.
"The thing that separates her from most of the players out there is that she is really an intelligent player," he said. "She knows how to break down another's player's game. She can play a lot of different styles she can pass, she can stay back, she can play good defense and she can switch to playing offense as well. That is definitely what has separated her from the pack."
As she concludes her career at Utah, Ferris would love to play in the NCAA Tournament this year. The best way would be with her team, which could qualify by winning the Mountain West Conference title or by playing well enough to grab an at-large berth.
If the team doesn't make it, Ferris could qualify as an individual. Wins like the one over Miseviciute will certainly help her chances.
Iandolo, who came to Utah from Purdue, where he built a strong program over the past 16 years, feels Utah can become a top program again like it was in the 1980s and players like Ferris will make a difference."I've coached on the women's side for over 20 years, and I'd say she manages the intangibles better than any player I've ever coached, and I've coached some good ones," he said.
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