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Now-junior Gavriella Smith during last season's matchup against Columbia on April 9. Credit: Nathaniel Sirlin

Penn women’s tennis junior Gavriella Smith was already accomplished when she first came to Penn. But since then, she has raised her profile even further. 

Fresh off five Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA) Division III State Championships in singles competition between seventh and 12th grade, Smith joined an exceptional Quaker tennis roster and began her collegiate career at fourth singles, where she went 25-5. 

Coach Sanela Kunovac fondly remembers Smith’s “phenomenal freshman year,” saying that “the number of matches that she lost [that season] could be counted on a single hand in the dual matches.” From there, Smith has climbed the ranks of the team among a strong roster of incredibly talented players, where she and her teammates move around in the top singles positions. 

Smith is known for leaving a glowing impression on everyone on the team. Her coaches and teammates describe her as a supportive friend who emanates a confident swagger, a tough fighter who leaves everything out on the court, and a major contributor to the locker room culture. Navigating the drama of a singles lineup can be tough with the wrong people, but Smith and her teammates never let their positions affect their friendships with the other athletes. 

When asked why she decided to pursue tennis at the collegiate level, Smith said that she never consciously made the choice; she just “followed in the path of [my] family,” where she was “next in line” to play college tennis. Smith comes from an impressive tennis background. Her father played tennis for Tulane and her brother Zachary is two years older and just graduated from Penn, where he played on the men’s team. Because of their small age gap, Gavriella and Zach would travel to USTA tournaments together every weekend. 

Playing competitive youth tennis is a major commitment, but unlike many high-level tennis players, Smith and her brother were never homeschooled or enrolled in a tennis academy.  Instead, she attended a local public school, missing thirty to forty  days of school a year to maintain her packed tournament schedule. 

“From seventh to eighth grade, to the time I graduated, it was school from like 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.," Smith said. "Then, practice right after that for three hours, and then I'd be traveling every single weekend, whether it was to Florida, California, Georgia — just all around until I committed.”

But last year, Smith's season took an unusual trajectory. She was out for the fall semester due to a wrist injury, but stepped up in the spring when the first singles player tore her ACL. It was a crucial moment that would determine a lot of things moving forward, and she handled the shift with unmatched ease. 

“I remember my coach coming up to me and saying, 'we're going to make you one [singles]'," Smith said. "Adding, 'are you ready for this challenge? Are you going to be there?'"

As scary as that proposition would be to some people, both Smith and Kunovac were sure that this was the right move, and Smith continued on to play her best tennis that season — learning, growing, and competing at a high level and finishing the year with second-team All-Ivy honors. 

To Kunovac, Smith is a “versatile” player who fights for every point and refuses to let opponents get comfortable in their own rhythm. She is exceptional on defense and counter-attacking aggressive players, forcing baseline hitters to move around the court and return a multitude of slices, drop shots, and angles that they’re not used to seeing. It’s not uncommon for an opponent to take an entire set just to figure out Smith’s plan, and at that point, she has usually gained the momentum to take the match.

Smith inspires her teammates to play better by being a shining role model on the court, but her influence off the court is just as prominent. Smith is very close with the team's younger players and helps facilitate a kind and positive team environment. One strong relationship she has developed is with freshman Esha Velaga, who speaks fondly of Smith as a wildly impressive player, supportive teammate, and good friend. 

For youth tennis players, the sport can feel isolating at times because it’s so individualized — players are competing against each other for ranking points, championships, and spots on college rosters. But she thinks that college tennis has been different.

“Yes, you have to win your matches individually, but I mean, it's a team sport. I think what I've learned the most probably within my first semester [of] being a freshman is [that] you're only as strong as your weakest link,” Smith said.

As she looks to the future, Smith’s biggest goal is to win the Ivy League championship with her team, a title of which they have been "snubbed" for the past few years. This season is shaping up to be a championship year for Penn women’s tennis, and Gavriella Smith will play a large role in their projected success.