By Randy Lieberman
Eight years ago and more than 9,000 miles away on a synthetic-surfaced tennis court in the scalding Oceania sun, a young girl began a journey. With the help of her parents, she traveled to eight different countries on the way to Georgia and college tennis' biggest stage.
For Abigail Tere-Apisah, her path to the playing in the round of 16 against the nation's top player at the 2012 Women's NCAA Singles Championship required sacrifice, adaptability and a strong work ethic. As with all things, the modest, yet fervently driven sophomore has taken any difficulties and found ways to turn them into positives.
The native of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, has put together a 2012 campaign that is already among the best individual seasons in school history. Tere-Apisah, who became the first GSU women's tennis player to compete in the NCAA Championships, suffered just one defeat during the regular season – to a top-50 ranked player – and won 17 of her 18 matches. Along the way, she soared from an unranked "player with potential" to the No. 37-ranked player in the nation.
One of a few individuals from the Pacific Island region to find success overseas in tennis, Tere-Apisah is a 19 year old described as having an effortless and explosive swing. Tennis, easily dwarfed by rugby, cricket and Australian Rules football in popularity in Papua New Guinea, has been a mainstay in her life since early childhood. Her father and mother, Kwalam Apisah and Verenagi Tere, are two of the only people in their country to own tennis coaching certifications. They have run tennis clinics for the national club in Port Moresby for more than 20 years.
"I was there every day since about three years old while all the other kids were being coached by my dad and practicing, I was usually on the side just hitting by myself," Tere-Apisah said, "When I was six or seven I decided to join the groups and train with them."
She explained that in some of the first live-match action of her life at age 7 she won an Under-8 Tournament. Her thoughts after winning: "OK, I might be able to do this." She found direction for her future path to achievement from her brother, Lawrence, who moved away shortly after she was born to Fiji about 2,100 miles southeast of Papua New Guinea. His destination was the Oceania Tennis Development Centre where he would live, attend school and practice tennis.
When she was 11, the apprehensive Tere-Apisah followed in her brother's footsteps and enrolled at the same academy. Her daily schedule: 5:30-7 a.m. conditioning, 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. grade school, 3-6 p.m. tennis practice, 7 p.m. dinner, 7:30-9:30 p.m. studying and homework time, 10 p.m. lights out. This included round-robin tournaments on the weekends and some well-earned, yet brief, free time after the matches ended. Her lone break from the day-to-day grind was the month of December when she flew home once a year to celebrate the holidays. Even during the holiday season, she still made a point to update her passport information to ensure she could travel to other countries to compete in tournaments.
Tere-Apisah would toil through this schedule for five years, and would find groundbreaking success. The academy recognized her talent and focused its efforts on sending her overseas to enter international tennis tournaments; the first time the academy focused on one player exclusively in its history. It was an uneasy feeling at first, one that Tere-Apisah expressed to her peers. They responded with encouragement as she began to play more tournaments than everyone else, so she took the headlining role in stride.
Standing 5 feet 6 inches, Tere-Apisah isn’t the most physically imposing presence on the court. She has long admired the similarly statured Justine Henin and her style of play. To boot, Tere-Apisah said she was a forgiving opponent and confessed she felt immense guilt if she happened to mistakenly call a ball out that was in.
"Kids did everything they could to cheat and get points, and I was a shy girl so I just let it pass," Tere-Apisah said, "I still feel guilty to this day, but ever since I lived in Australia and then came here, I am trying to stand my ground more and not let opponents try to cheat me out of points."
At age 14, she qualified for an Under-16 International Tennis Federation team that entered her into four tournaments across six weeks in Italy and France. This team selected her as one of five girls along with six boys to represent the Pacific, Asia and Africa regional team. The tournaments served as her first exposure to the intensity of high-level competition in international tennis. She gets animated when describing the first-time experience.
"There was something different about them and I was too scared to move my feet and play my game," Tere-Apisah said. "Everyone there was so aggressive, yelling, 'Come on!' and 'Let's go!' and I was so intimidated."
She struggled, advancing past the second round just once in the six tournaments. But the experience was far from a waste. It was now time to take yet another uncharted step, and she did so by hopping over to the Margaret Court Tennis Academy located in Albury in Country, New South Wales, Australia. Tere-Apisah chose Albury, a small town in the countryside, as opposed to other available locations in the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne. It was something about the small-town lifestyle that attracted her.
Phil Shanahan, the nephew of tennis legend Margaret Court, knew he had been given a gift as soon as he saw her. "Boy what an incredible talent," he told the Australia Network in a news feature on Tere-Apisah in 2009, "You know, I honestly believe she is a potential top-30 player in the world." The legendary Ms. Court shared Shanahan's enthusiasm and donated $1,000 to Tere-Apisah so she could attend her academy. Shanahan told Tere-Apisah she could be the role model for other island natives who wanted to play tennis at a high level. It was Tere-Apisah's dream to pursue an education, and Shanahan dedicated himself to making it happen.
(Editor's note: Margaret Court won a record 62 major titles, including 24 singles major titles. She was the first to win all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year. She was No. 1 in the world six times in the 1960's and 1970's. The ITF Hall of Famer is from Albury, in New South Wales, Australia and is now 70 years old).
The years of 2009 and 2010 were life-altering for Tere-Apisah. At this point, the 16 going on 17 year old had raised her ITF ranking to No. 124 in the world. In 2009, she began playing elite junior tournaments in Thailand, Philippines, Morocco and Korea. In 2010 she competed in the qualifying round of the Junior Australian Open, advancing all the way to the round of 16 only to fall to the No. 1 seed Marianne Jodoin (who Tere-Apisah exacted revenge upon this season when she defeated Jodoin in straight sets at Fresno State).
A summer trip in 2009 to train at the Hobson Performance Tennis Academy in Lawrenceville, Ga., prior to two tournaments changed her tennis career forever. It was the first time she would hear of Georgia State, courtesy of a former GSU student-athlete.
"To be honest, Georgia State was not really high on my list at first because the other schools contacting me were ranked higher," Tere-Apisah said. "It was a last-minute decision because I was leaning towards Texas A&M or Ole Miss, but in the end I wanted to be in a city. I was in Albury, in the country, and I learned a lot of stuff there, but I wanted to try city life."
The soft-spoken Tere-Apisah was gaining confidence off the court as well as on. Prior to enrolling at Albury High School, Tere-Apisah claimed she would break down in tears when asked to give a speech. But she gained confidence in her English classes at Albury. It was the perfect setting to prepare Tere-Apisah for any challenges ahead of her. Yet again, that next challenge meant a significant change of address as she began her life in Atlanta.
Since she set foot on the GSU campus for second semester classes last January, Tere-Apisah has lost just three times in 34 singles matches. She posted a 14-2 mark her freshman season, including a 5-1 record in the No. 1 singles position. Her growing list of awards includes the 2012 Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year, 2011 CAA Rookie of the Year, back-to-back All-CAA First Team Singles nominations and back-to-back Most Outstanding Performer at the CAA Championship honors. Last season, she partnered with classmate and roommate Maryna Kozachenko to be named an alternate in the 2011 NCAA Women's Doubles Championships.
Tere-Apisah said she improved more this past year than in any other throughout her career. The shy girl who gave away points in Australia was replaced by a fierce competitor with a composed intensity her teammates feed off of. Twice this season she fought back from large third-set deficits to defeat ranked opponents. After twisting her ankle badly in the second set, she faced match points down 5-2 and 5-4 in the third set before rallying with a 7-6 (3), 3-6, 7-5 win against the current No. 11-ranked singles player in the country in Jillian O'Neill of Georgia Tech. Tere-Apisah then trailed 5-0 in the third set before she fought off four match points and won seven straight games to defeat the No. 41-ranked Ecaterina Vasenina of South Florida, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Yet with all of her success, a grateful Tere-Apisah always manages to remember what brought her to Atlanta in the first place.
"I always keep in the back of my head how much my parents have done for me to get me where I am," she said. "I never realized it until I came to America and I started to recognize how much they really sacrificed for me. We are not the wealthiest of families, and I have other siblings, so it makes it hard for them to provide for all of us. But they have gone out of their way to make sure we have everything that will help us be the best."
On May 24, she became the first player in school history to earn ITA All-America status in tennis with a convincing 6-3, 6-4 victory against Tennessee's Kata Szekely in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Women's Singles Championship. She lost the next day 6-1, 6-4 to Allie Will of the University of Florida, the No. 1-ranked player in the country. Tere-Apisah finished 19-2 on the season, a new school record for singles victories in one year. She also became the first Georgia State tennis player in school history to win matches at the NCAA Singles Championship.
"You can throw anything at her and she will respond, and the thing is she makes it look so effortless," Georgia State women's tennis head coach Miha Lisac said. "Her improvement this year has just been outstanding, I've never been around a player quite like her."
It comes as no surprise that Tere-Apisah is a fan of the laid back rhythms and yet resonating lyrics of Bob Marley. A particular favorite quote of hers comes from his song, "Zion Train" and reads, "Don't gain the world and lose your soul, wisdom is better than silver or gold." It is a mantra that reiterates her mindset in all areas of her life.
"I want to be the best that I can possibly be, with whatever I have and I want to stay humble and happy," Tere-Apisah said.
As in every step of her journey, Tere-Apisah will face her next set of challenges with a balanced mind. It is one of the ways she has followed her unlikely path to greatness, all the while taking everything in stride.