Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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June 6, 2013

Williams falls in Group A singles action to George Mason netter

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Caitlin Williams has seen the future of Group A girls tennis in Virginia. She has also seen the present.

They might be the same person.

George Mason freshman Mariam Salakaia made quick work of Williams in the Group A state singles semifinals on Thursday, overpowering the Graham junior 6-0, 6-0 at Virginia Tech’s Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center.

Salakaia finished an undefeated season by defeating Rosa Smith of Gate City 6-3, 6-2 to claim the Group A state championship at Virginia Tech’s indoor facility, which was used when heavy rain forced the tennis activities to be moved from Radford University.

Smith was able to reach the finals for a second straight year, defeating Ginna Slattum of Appomattox Regional Governor’s School 6-1, 6-1.

Smith, who lost to Bland County’s Grace Sarver in the finals last season, ran into a talented Salakaia, who didn’t enter the season expecting to play for the state title, but she certainly enjoyed the experience.

“I am going to the finals and try my best,” said Salakaia, after the win over Williams. “I didn’t really expect anything, but I am glad I got to the finals.”

It could be the first of many.

“That girl, she is good, she hit a lot of winners, and didn’t give you much opportunity to get into the match,” Graham girls tennis coach Kevin Bowers said. “She is a player, she is good. She is a good player.”

Williams, who claimed the Region C championship, won the first point of the match with an ace. Salakaia quickly used her strength and passing strokes to take control of the match, allowing Williams just one more point in the opening set.

“I just haven’t played anyone who hits that well before, at least in the state tournament,” Williams said. “I have never gotten that far before.”

While admittedly a ‘little’ nervous, the lanky Williams faced a foe who was able to use the entire court, sending the balls to the baseline on either side of the court, producing numerous winners, with six of the 12 games being completed with the minimum for four points each.

“I just played my game and she fought really hard, “ Salakaia said, “and it was a good match anyway.”

Salakaia is a native of the Republic of Georgia, a small country located near the Black Sea that gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Her family moved to the Fairfax, Va., area two years ago, and Salakaia has continued to work on her game, anticipating an opportunity to play for George Mason, a stellar tennis program that has won three state girls team titles in the past.

“This is my first year playing here and I was just very glad to get to the state and being able to play with the team,” said Salakaia, who is the first female singles champion at George Mason since 1987. “It is a good experience and it is fun.”

It wasn’t for Williams, who managed to score attain just two points in the opening set, and five in the second set, as Salakaia continued to use her strength and an effective serve to collect winners or force mistakes by Williams.

The 14-year-old Salakaia credits hard work on a daily basis for reaching success at such a young age.

“I practice every day at Regency (Sport & Health Club) in Fairfax for a couple of hours a day,” she said. “I play a lot of tournaments on the weekends and in nationals.”

Williams, whose personal coach is local professional Mark Sarver, plans to seek out hard-hitting opponents to practice with in the off-season and she doesn’t have far to go. Sarver’s daughter, Grace, won three of the previous four state titles, and could serve as a willing hitting partner.

“I just need to practice with someone who hits the ball hard like Grace,” Williams said. “I can practice with her this summer and that will help me a lot.”

Williams was able to narrow the margin to 30-40 in the fifth game of the second set, but Salakaia finished off that off, and then won the final four points of the match to advance to the finals.

While Mark Sarver greeted Williams after the match by saying ‘he was proud of her’, Bowers expects Williams will do what it takes to return better in 2014.

“Absolutely, she will play in tournaments this summer,” Bowers said. “She knows what her goals are and where she wants to go and this is just one step on the journey.”

Williams isn’t finished yet. She will team up with fellow junior Rebecca Day to face the Gate City duo of Rosa and Emily Smith in the Group A doubles semifinals today, with the matches slated to be played in Roanoke.

“We have played the doubles team before in practice so we kind of know already what we need to do,” Williams said. “We have a strategy that we can work on.”

“They have got a great chance in doubles,” added Bowers.

Williams remained upbeat after the loss, looking at it as an opportunity to get better for another run at the state level next spring.

“It was just a new experience, I just have to get better over the summer,” Williams said. “It wasn’t going to be easy, but I just have to keep my head up and just get better for next year.”

—Contact Brian Woodson


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