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Friday May 13, 2011Meet UF Tennis Player Joanna Mather, Just Don't Call Her Team Leader

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Joanna Mather likely won’t read this story. If she does, she certainly won’t want to talk about it with her friends or post it on Facebook for the world to see.

She prefers to keep the volume turned down low.

“I don’t like to talk about myself at all,’’ Mather said.

That was noticeable shortly after the 21-year-old Mather showed up for an interview on Wednesday at UF’s Ring Tennis Complex.

When asked her thoughts on the Gators as they open the NCAA Tournament at home with a first-round match Saturday against South Carolina State, Mather provided a modest sound bite here and there. When asked to discuss herself, Mather clammed up like a kid working over his first lollipop.

Before this story continues, you might want to know what makes Mather worth writing about. Since Mather would never shout “look at me,” we left it up to her teammates and Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist to talk about Florida’s de facto team leader.

The most experienced player on the Gators, the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament which begins on Saturday, Mather has split time at Nos. 3 and 4 singles, posting a 17-3 record and more importantly, setting an example for her young teammates to emulate. With fellow junior Claire Bartlett sidelined all season with a back injury, Mather’s leadership has played a key role for the SEC champion Gators.

But don’t tell her that.

“I’ve heard that a lot,’’ she said. “I really don’t look at myself as being a team leader. I enjoy working hard, I enjoy the people on my team, and I hope they enjoy me. That’s all I do.’’

As you have probably noticed, Mather likes to quickly shift subjects when the subject is her.

So, let’s move on to Thornqvist, who watched Mather go from a lower lineup player to perhaps the team’s best player by the end of her freshman season two years ago. The Gators lost 10 matches during the 2008-09 season – a single-season record in the program’s 39-year history – but Mather never missed a practice or showed any signs of defeat.

She won both her NCAA Tournament matches her first season, and when the Gators rebounded with a revamped roster to make a run to the NCAA title match a year ago, Mather was 4-0 in the postseason.

When the pressure is greatest is often when Mather is at her best. Thornqvist saw that two years ago and he sees it today.

“She’s very important to us,’’ Thornqvist said. “Joanna is the only player [on our roster] who went through our tough year two years ago. Jo was a freshman and the pressure they learned to play under – they felt like they had to win every single time they stepped out there.

“You learn a lot from that, and I think Jo did.’’

She might not say a lot, but Mather speaks to her teammates in tennis language.

They say her actions around Linder Stadium say everything that needs to be said about Mather, who came to UF from Duluth, Ga., about an hour northeast of Atlanta.

“She is our junior. I feel like she’s been more of the leader,’’ sophomore Lauren Embree said. “Jo is great on and off the court. She has improved so much. She is just a great person and a great person to have on your team.

“Even off the court, she does everything right. She just makes you a better person.’’

Thornqvist shared a story about what makes Mather a team leader whether she likes the label or not. The Gators played in the National Indoors in February and Mather’s arm hurt. Really hurt. The injury would have sidelined most players.

Mather played through the pain, eventually needing most of March to rehab the injury and get back on the court.

“If somebody has the sniffles, it’s kind of like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ She plays with a broken arm,’’ Thornqvist said. “The kid is so tough. Even though she might not be the most vocal leader we’ve ever had, just her behavior sort of acts as a catalyst and it trickles down to the freshmen.’’

With Bartlett out, Florida’s active roster has four sophomores, three freshmen and Mather. Sophomore Allie Will is Florida’s No. 1 singles player and is currently ranked No. 7 in the country.

Will couldn’t think of a great Mather story to share, instead showering her teammate with respect for the way she goes about her business.

“She is wonderful,’’ Will said. “She is one of the nicest people I know, and she is sarcastic and funny. She does a really great job. She’s not the loudest person on the team, but you can see she is doing all the right things.’’

The respect is mutual. If she doesn’t say a lot, so be it. She’s more concerned about walking the walk and helping the Gators win their first national title since 2003.

“We have such a talented team. It’s so fun coming out and hitting with all these girls,’’ she said.

Before this story ends, let’s go back to Thornqvist. Is there anything else he would like to say about Mather, the team leader who doesn’t see herself that way?

Thankfully there is.

“She is very physical, she is incredibly athletic, and she always does everything right,’’ Thornqvist said. “She’s always on time; she’s always in a good mood. She doesn’t have to say a whole lot.

“She just does everything right. That’s one definition of leadership.”

If Mather does read this story, she probably won’t like that last quote.

 

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