Nov. 8, 2013
By Staci Gasser
Jane Fennelly embodies the term “Fighting Irish” more than most.
She is just as much a fighter on the tennis courts as she is Irish.
The Notre Dame freshman is a native of Rathmines, Ireland, a suburb on the south side of Dublin and is getting settled into the American way of life at the University of Notre Dame.
“Everyone has been so welcoming and helpful. Like international orientation was a great way of settling in,” Fennelly says. “The first two weeks was a bit of a struggle, but after that it’s been fine. I’ve really enjoyed working with Jay [Louderback, head coach] and Catrina [Thompson, assistant coach] and all of the girls.”
Daily life in the United States hasn’t been as much of a cultural change for Fennelly as the tennis environment has been.
She said the tennis community in Ireland doesn’t play tournaments in the winter, where as here, she’s already played in three. They also play on grass, where as at Notre Dame, it’s primarily indoor play.
“It’s been a big change for me, learning to put up longer rallies and play a faster match,” Fennelly explains. “My indoor game is definitely getting better. I’m always hitting one more ball each time. The competition level is definitely higher than it is back home.”
Fennelly is also in awe of the number of different people she gets to play against. Ireland’s small tennis community forces the players to face almost the same competitors in every tournament.
“It’s hard playing against friends so much. It can get quite catty,” she said. “There’s so much more of a range of talent here to play against.”
Fennelly and her doubles partner sophomore Julie Vrabel have done well in tournament play so far, going 2-1 in the Wolverine Invitational and advancing to the second round of the ITA Midwest Regional Championships.
“I love being a part of a team,” Fennelly says. “The Americans have a real positive attitude. They’re always striving for self-improvement. I’m impressed with their determination and motivation. It’s been a positive influence on me.”
And in a time when ethnic sports mascots are a topic for heated debates and protests, Fennelly is proud of her school’s representation.
“The Fighting Irish thing has a big influence on me because I’m pretty patriotic,” she admits. “I embrace it. I feel like I’m playing for my country the whole time here. Being an Irishman in America you get a lot of questions but here at Notre Dame, where everyone claims to have these Irish connections and ancestors, I really like it.”
Fennelly was undefeated throughout her high school tennis career, being the National U18 champion in singles, doubles and mixed doubles and represented Ireland in the Federation Cup in Moldova.
She first connected with Notre Dame when the football team traveled to Dublin to play Navy and when the men’s tennis team traveled to Dublin for the Irish Davis Cup team.
“I saw how many Notre Dame fans were there and got the Notre Dame experience, and it captured my heart,” Fennelly recalls. “I fell in love with the fans I met and the men’s team was fun and extra friendly. Since then, I focused on Notre Dame.”
She talked to the former and current head men’s tennis coaches Bobby Bayless and Ryan Sachire while in Dublin who helped her get in touch with Louderback.
Then-future teammate freshman Monica Robinson went to Dublin over the summer and met with Fennelly, so when Fennelly moved across the ocean, she wasn’t completely alone.
Fennelly says social networking has been a God-send to her, as it’s her primary way to keep in touch with her Irish friends. She also usually calls her parents on the weekend or on the way to weights in the early morning hours since it’s lunchtime over there.
“We make it work,” Fennelly explains. “My teammates and I all bonded and have become good friends. I want to play as hard as I can, improve game and see how much I can improve in the next four years.”