Five years ago, LSU women’s tennis coach Julia Sell sat down with Southern California freshman Danielle Lao during a tour with the USTA summer collegiate team. Sell told her she wasn’t putting enough effort into her game.
Lao never forgot those words.
On Sunday, Sell stood on her home court and watched as Lao came back from a 3-0 deficit in the second set of the singles final at the Southern Lifestyle Development Tennis Classic — an International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit event — to beat reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Brooke Austin 6-3, sealing the match win in the process.
The event was held at LSU’s W.T. “Dub” Robinson Tennis Stadium but was not officially affiliated with the school since it was not a NCAA event.
“For someone to sit me down and tell me that, I knew something must be missing, and it just kind of clicked with me,” Lao said. “(Sell) was right, and so every time I see her, I remind her that she gave me a little tough love.
“(This win) is just kind of like, ‘Yeah, that’s right,’ ” Lao said, playfully gesturing in Sell’s direction.
Sell said she originally felt horrible after having the tough-love conversation with Lao, but she felt proud watching someone who credits her with such a career-changing moment win a championship.
Lao needed all the heart she could get Sunday after a back-and-forth first set in which neither player took more than a one-game lead until Lao finally clinched the set 7-5. A look of frustration washed over Austin’s face as she struggled to create any kind of rhythm early on.
“I think this is match No. 9 for me this week, so my legs weren’t the greatest today,” said Austin, who plays collegiately for Florida. “It was a good match, though. (Lao) played well.”
Austin found a spark of momentum in the second set, jumping to a 3-0 lead. But Lao came back from an early deficit in the fourth game to force deuce before taking the game and igniting what would become a match-winning 6-0 streak.
“I don’t think I missed too much in the last six games,” Lao said. “Physically, I was feeling all right, so I didn’t mind the battle. I wasn’t thinking about saving anything for a third set.”
Lao’s road to the final wasn’t much easier than the match itself. She first had to survive a long match with No. 3 Lauren Embree 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-2 in the second round, then beat No. 8 Chieh-Yu Hsu 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals before taking down the sixth ranked junior in the world, Usue Maitane Arconada, in the semifinals.
Austin defeated No. 4 Samantha Crawford 7-5, 6-4 to reach the final after dismissing LSU’s Joana Vale Costa 6-4, 6-0 in the quarterfinals.