When MU tennis player Sofia Ayala first met teammate Kaitlin Dunham last fall, she thought Dunham hated her. Now, after playing several doubles matches paired together, the two sit together after a long practice and argue kiddingly about their false first impressions and realize that their relationship has grown into something so valuable that neither would be the same player without it.
Dunham, a sophomore, and Ayala, a junior, make themselves known on the court for their loud, energetic and spirited play, using their fiery personalities to intimidate opponents and cheer on each other and their teammates.
It started when coach Blake Starkey, who labels the pair as “the most enjoyable team to watch,” told the girls that they were both loud and therefore they should play together. After a rocky start in the fall, they have found more success this spring in terms of resultsand in terms of a successful relationship.
“(Ayala) does an awesome job of calming me down when I need it,” Dunham said. “She does a really good job of balancing me out when I get a little crazy.”
“(Dunham) is the one who brings me up every time I miss a point,” Ayala said. “If I’m having a rough day I’ll come to the court and she’ll say ‘cheer up, you’re playing doubles with me,’ and she’ll make me laugh and then I’ll just cheer up.”
The two have found the perfect match of personalities in terms of similar styles of play, balancing each other out and feeding off each other. Both use volume as a motivating tool and as a way to release any frustration.
While they can use those tactics individually, Dunham says it’s doing those things together that makes them much more effective.
“If one of us just did it then it wouldn’t work,” she said. “It’s both of us working off of each other that makes it really good.”
But emotion can also have its negative effects. Both girls recognize that while it is their greatest strength as a pair, tennis is a sport that requires a lot of focus and there is a point at which emotion needs to be capped off.
In a match against Illinois-Chicago a couple weeks ago, the two built a comfortable 4-1 lead in an eight-game set. According to Ayala, the two got too outwardly positive, which resulted in giving up the lead and losing 8-7 (4).
“We need to handle emotions a little bit,” Ayala said. “Sometimes we forget, and we just get too excited.”
As much as they need to find strategies of keeping their emotions in check, neither would stop shouting just to remedy a bad situation. It’s part of who they are as players and as people.
Dunham often talks to herself or scolds herself out on the court. She says that when she studies for a test, she needs to use the same verbal strategy in order to succeed because that’s how she functions.
“If I don’t yell one time it actually hurts because I feel like I have to let that out in some way,” she said. “Yelling for me is my release.”
Ayala agrees, saying that if she doesn’t yell she would probably turn around and cry, or at least struggle to focus on the next point.
Dunham and Ayala also have help from assistant coach Blake Edwards when it comes to controlling their intensity. Edwards says that their intimidation factor is a weapon that should be utilized and not shied away from.
“I really hype up with them to just let all their anger and emotions bleed onto the court,” Edwards said.
The players and Edwards have a non-verbal signal they refer to as “the bitch switch.” Edwards will tell them to “flip the switch” to let them know that they need to stop being calm and vocalize more. Sometimes it even means getting scary.
At Iowa last weekend, one of the pair’s doubles opponents was being “really mean”, according to Ayala. Ayala and Dunham weren’t going to stand there and take it, so they each stared her down to let her know they meant business. After that, they said the Iowa player made a string of about 10 mistakes.
“We don’t care that we’re mean,” Ayala said.
For the girls it’s fun and part of the strategy. Dunham said it comes off to others as them taking the game too seriously, but in reality, Dunham says “it’s just a game for us.”
Ultimately, fun is what all the intensity is about. Dunham and Ayala need it, and they need each other. They said if they were reassigned doubles partners that it would have a negative effect, something they didn’t expect to find in a doubles partner.
“This works for us,” Dunham said. “We didn’t realize how much (playing together) could benefit us until now.”
Because of Ayala’s extra year of eligibility, they will have more than two years to hone their skills and capitalize on their unique intensity.
“The longer they’re together, the more dangerous they will become,” Edwards said.
For now, both Dunham and Ayala hope they can encourage their teammates to carry the same supportive energy on a more consistent basis. Dunham says she caught a glimpse of the team’s energy potential at Iowa, but as the pivotal conference season nears, they will need that energy more than ever, and Dunham and Ayala hope to be the spark.