Two For The Show

Sept. 19, 2007

Two for the show

Sisters finding stride on tennis court

 by Andrew Pentis

 published on Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Raising their rackets up to their shoulders each time, they focus on the green balls emanating from the machine faced in their direction; and, as the Arizona sun beat down on their faces, the Abdala sisters smacked the balls right back.

The older one, Laila, enters her third season as a member of ASU's tennis team while the younger one, Nadia, enters her second.

'This is hard work,' Laila conceded.

Nadia, meanwhile, playfully hit tennis balls toward men's players, who were playing on a nearby court.

'Nadia!' Laila yelled, getting the attention of her younger, though taller, sister.
According to ASU coach Sheila McInerney, this sequence of events is of no surprise to her at all.

'You can tell she is the older sister - in a good way,' McInerney said of Laila. 'She'll always be looking out for her younger sister.'

But it's what the pair does on the court, smacking those balls, which brought them together at ASU.

Playing at ASU

Laila, 20, led ASU in wins with 24 last season, finishing 10-3 against the Pac-10.

But it could be her younger sister, Nadia, 19, who kicks up more of a fuss in the tennis world.

As a freshman, she went 23-9 on the hard court and was named to the 2007 Pacific-10 Women's All-Conference second team.

Nadia also finished the season ranked as the 37th best player according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association [ITA].

'We have a lot of faith in her,' McInerney said. 'We think she can be as good as anyone in the country, quite frankly.'

The Abdala arrival

The sisters grew up in Mexico City and moved to San Diego to play competitive high school tennis at Eastlake high, where each was inducted into the school's hall of fame.

'I was like top five in Mexico,' Laila said. 'So I came to California, and got my butt kicked [during] the first three years. That made me a better player.'

It didn't take long for McInerney to realize that getting Laila to come to ASU would give the program more than just another good tennis player.

'When you recruit kids, you ask them what their goals are,' McInerney said. 'And they always say 'Oh, I want to win the NCAA's or whatever,' Laila was much different.

'When we asked her, she said 'I just want to become a better person.''

Laila said the Pac-10 competition and reputation of McInerney made it an easy decision to become a Sun Devil.

'She is like my mom at ASU,' Laila said of her coach.

Having her sister join her unexpectedly was just happenstance.

Another girl decided to graduate in three years, leaving an open spot for Nadia.

'I wasn't planning on coming here at all,' Nadia said. 'I came on a recruiting trip -- but just to visit my sister.'

Nadia was a bit under the radar coming out of high school because she didn't have a lot of exposure in the U.S. and suffered a wrist injury during her senior year.

'I think her goal was to go off and play professional tennis for a couple of years.' McInerney said. 'I'm sure she would readily admit now that she's nowhere near ready yet to play the pros.'

Growth on the court

'She's been everything we wanted and more, quite frankly, a diamond in the rough,' McInerney said of the older Abdala.

Despite her high school success, Laila wasn't recruited by any other Pac-10 school.

'Ask any coach in the conference, they'll say 'Wow, where did she come from?'' McInerney said.

But along with Laila's ascension from the sixth best player on the squad to the third or fourth comes tougher matches against tougher opponents.

'There's a difference between playing in the top half, and winning in the top half,' McInerney said.

Nadia, meanwhile, had little trouble winning as the team's second ranked player, but even she had to overcome initial difficulties.

She came in as a skinny, 6 foot 2 inch, 18-year-old and ran the worst mile on team, according to her coach.

After getting used to a more advanced strength and conditioning program, she's become much stronger.

McInerney said, 'She's got a few muscles now.'

The Abdala Double Special

Though Nadia returns as perhaps the team's top player, her coach said she hasn't begun to realize her potential.

'For as good and as a powerful-hitter as she is, she needs to work on her doubles this year, and I think she knows that,' McInerney said.

Nadia will not only get a chance to improve upon her doubles' play, she may get to do it alongside Laila.

One obstacle could be their similarities, as each are powerful strikers but aren't as good at keeping the volley alive.

'I remember them coming in [out of high school], they said 'Oh, we're going to play doubles and be this great team.'' McInerney said. 'I think they realized that college doubles is a lot different than junior doubles.'

Laila and Nadia should give it a go at the ITA's Regional Championships in San Diego, Oct. 18.

Friendly match

'I'm the older one, so I'm supposed to be better at everything.' Laila said of the ongoing struggle to compete with her sister.

The pressure to rise to the occasion motivates each sister to get better, Laila said.

The competition usually gives way to pauses during practice when each player helps the other with her stroke.

'We try to help each other because we know each other's games better than anyone else,' Nadia said. 'We just trust each other.'

Laila said there's a time and place for such assistance, though, knowing her sister often needs space on the court.

'It's difficult sometimes,' she said. 'Usually if I say something, she'll say 'How do you know?''

With that, the competition quickly returns.

Laila said she's only broken two rackets during her entire playing career and both happened while playing against Nadia.

But she did win the last match-up at the conclusion of the team's 2006-2007 schedule, 6-4, though her younger sister quickly offered an excuse.

'I was burnt out after last season,' Nadia said with a smile.

The sisters play for stakes: usually for who does the laundry or makes dinner.

Keeping things fun with those subtleties allows the sisters to keep perspective.

'It's great because we definitely know how to separate personal from professional,' she said. 'After we step out off the court, we never speak [about] tennis.'

Under the Arizona sun, it's sisters first, teammates second.

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