Jamie Loeb serving up some suspense
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After ripping through a junior career so crammed with trophies that she became the No. 1 tennis prospect in the country, Jamie Loeb was torn.
Should she go to college or turn pro?
Her family came down firmly on the go-to-school side, but her coaches and others in the tennis community asked why she would bother with classes when her future was as an athlete.
"I really considered both options thoroughly," Loeb said. "Part of me thought I was ready, and part of me thought I wasn't."
The Ossining, New York, native talked to another New Yorker who had been faced with the same difficult decision -- John McEnroe, who ran the academy in New York City where Loeb trained.
McEnroe attended Stanford for a year before winning seven Grand Slam singles titles, and he advised Loeb to follow the same path.
Nine months into her college career at the University of North Carolina, the freshman already has learned that she made the right choice.
Loeb became the first freshman in nearly 30 years to win the Riviera/ITA Women's All-American Championship and the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship in the same season. Now she will be seeded No. 1 in singles and No. 3 in doubles along with partner Hayley Carter, a fellow freshman, when the NCAA Division I women's singles and doubles championships begin next week at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Georgia. Loeb and seventh-seeded UNC (26-5) have advanced to the round of 16 in the team competition. The Tar Heels face 10th-seeded Texas A&M on Thursday.
Loeb said she was leaning toward turning pro after she won the singles and doubles 18-and-under titles at the 2012 USTA National Winter Championship and won a pair of $10,000 Futures events. But her gut told her that she should spend at least a year in college.
"I thought that was important," Loeb said. "Not only just for education but for me to grow as a person and a player. Just to mature basically, physically and mentally, and gain my independence. I had to learn about myself."
Loeb, who is 19, said the social aspects of college have given her life more balance and made her more relaxed when she plays. And she hasn't sacrificed her skills on the court. UNC coach Brian Kalbas said that Loeb is always adding new weapons to her game -- recently she has worked on adding variety to her serve and handling the deep ball wide to her forehand side -- and that his star player is often the last player to leave the court after practice.
"As talented as she is, she's still trying to perfect things and get to that next level," Kalbas said. "And that's what's great about her."
"She's still hungry to improve, and she's wonderful to coach because of that hunger and that positive attitude and that drive every single day. There's not a day that she's taken off a day of practice. She's intense every single day."
That persistence has driven Loeb's rise to No. 1 in the country -- a ranking she has held since Feb. 11. She carries an overall singles record of 47-2, including 28-1 in dual matches.
"If you would have told me she'd win two national titles and win 47 matches, I would have said, 'No chance,'" Kalbas said. "I knew she was good coming in, but she definitely exceeded my expectations."
And that came despite taking everyone's best shot all season. The early titles ensured that Loeb would be a target despite her youth. But she has stayed mentally focused and not let the distractions or the pressure of being No. 1 get to her.
"Any pressure I feel comes from myself because I set high goals and expectations for myself," Loeb said. "I just use it as motivation instead of thinking that others are out to get me. I use it more in a positive way instead of a negative way."
Loeb and Carter also improved as a doubles team as the season went on. After losing three times early on, the freshman duo is undefeated in the spring season and 16-0 in dual matches. The pair's overall mark stands at 30-3.
The two players changed sides and incorporated more doubles strategy into their games, becoming more aggressive and unpredictable by using more poaching, movement and formations.
The adjustments are a welcome change for Loeb, who admits that she can be stubborn. A perfectionist, Loeb has been known to try a certain shot until she makes it during a match, even if Kalbas suggests a more flexible approach. But Loeb has become more introspective after matches about figuring out how to improve, showing a maturity she didn't always have as a junior player.
Now Loeb will try to accomplish something no one else has been able to achieve -- winning NCAA titles in singles and doubles as a freshman. The only other women to win both tournaments in the same year are senior Linda Gates of Stanford in 1985, junior Keri Phebus of UCLA in 1995 and sophomore Nicole Gibbs of Stanford in 2012.
Whatever happens, Loeb knows she will soon be faced with a familiar choice - stay in college or turn pro. She is ranked 401st in the world right now and reached a career high in September at 353. She made it to the second round of qualifying at the 2013 US Open before falling in three sets to Ksenia Pervak of Russia.
"Since I've had a lot of success, a lot of people have been asking me what I'm going to do," Loeb said. "I'll base that on how I do in the summer and see how things go at the NCAAs. I honestly don't know the answer right now, but I think I proved myself."