It was 4:30 a.m. when Jane Fuller heard clanking in a room down the hallway in her family’s Alpharetta home.
The mother of three peeled herself out of bed to find her youngest daughter, 11-year-old Kate, standing at the top of the stairwell with a visor and tennis gear on, ready for her first national tournament.
The tournament, which was at Windward Lake Club in Alpharetta, didn’t require Kate to report for a few more hours. Jane told Kate to climb back in bed for another hour or two, it wasn’t quite time to head to the club.
“I set my alarm wrong,” Kate told mother.
Jane nor her husband, Jim, had to remind Kate about practice times, tournament check-ins or her school work. It wasn’t a shock for Jane to see Kate raring to go that early in the morning.
“This has been Kate,” Jane said. “That is just the way she is. … Since she was little, she has been very self-disciplined and didn’t require pushing on our part at all. She pushed herself. I never had to ask her to go to practice.”
Fuller, a senior on the top-seeded Georgia women’s tennis team, begins her final stretch of matches on the same courts she played her first tournament 16 years ago at Georgia’s Dan Magill Tennis Complex. Fuller remembers walking around the grandstand at 8 years old and playing on the McWhorter and Henry Field courts.
She came back with her older sisters, Kari and Kristen, for more tournaments including the NCAA championships, which Georgia (23-4) hosts again starting today. She remembers drawing inspiration from Natalie Frazier, who played for the Bulldogs from 2003-05, and making up her mind at 13 years old that she wanted to play at Georgia.
It was then when her father, Jim, took all three of his daughter’s shopping for Georgia T-shirts after playing in a tournament in Athens.
Fuller saw the team posters hanging on the walls of the bookstore and knew where she wanted to go to college.
“I knew all these girls that were getting full scholarships for tennis and I was like, ‘That is so cool. I could do that,’” Fuller said. “… It’s kind of a dream come true for me to play here.”
Fuller’s older sisters, who also played collegiate tennis, were her first inspirations, though. They made the switch from gymnastics to tennis when Fuller was 7 years old, leading her to choose rackets and sneakers over leotards and grips. Kari and Kristen, six and four years older than Kate, respectively, included their baby sister in practice sessions.
“A lot of times they would go out and play with her, but they wouldn’t hit as hard as they could because they could out hit her when they were bigger than she was,” Jane said. “Now the truth is she could out hit them.”
Fuller had to wait in the wings, though, while her sisters got their time to play in tournaments. Jane and Jim signed her up for once-a-week private lessons at 8 and Fuller learned then how to travel, tagging along to Kari and Kristen’s matches. But she wanted to compete as often as possible.
“It was always all her when she was little,” Jane said. “She was always pushing to play a little more and she wanted to play more tournaments. … She was always anxious to get started.”
Fuller advanced, and quickly. She started making it further and further in tournaments, bleeding into Mondays and causing Fuller to miss school. Finally, in eighth grade, Fuller and her parents decided to go the home school route and let their youngest daughter earn her high school diploma online.
Fuller’s tennis game took off.
“She was the type of player to get every ball back and she made you beat her and she was tough,” said Georgia teammate Lauren Herring, who played with Fuller in juniors. “She was really tough out there. A good competitor and I think a lot of that has transferred over into her game now, but it’s funny to see the differences between Kate back then and Kate now because I’ve known her so long. Her game has definitely evolved. Kate now is looking to get into net and she’s taking a backhand and she’s ripping it and she’s using her serve. She’s definitely created weapons since she’s gotten older.”
Since arriving at Georgia, Fuller has made up for some of the things she missed out on by not attending a traditional high school. After her freshman year, she was inducted into the Tate Society and was president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee last year, among a laundry list of extracurriculars that don’t include her tennis résumé, which includes a 21-8 overall record in her final season as a Bulldog.
“I think she feels that she’s been given a lot, she’s been blessed a lot and she wants to give back,” Jane said. “She likes to be busy. She’s not one to sit around all the time. She’s been in the habit of being busy since she was little.”
Fuller’s biggest commitment this spring was to the Clarke County School District mentoring program, spending time with a third-grader at Barrow Elementary once a week.
“It’s great because she doesn’t even really understand what I do every day but I just get to hang out with her and show her appreciation for what she does every day,” Fuller said.
It was around that age Fuller first set foot on the tennis courts at Georgia. And over the next six days, she’ll be competing at No. 5 singles trying to help the Bulldogs win their first national title since 2000, all with her mom, dad and both sisters in the same stands they have frequented so many times over the last decade.
“Now she’s playing in her last event on those courts,” Georgia coach Jeff Wallace said. “and, I mean, that’s got to be special for anybody. Are you kidding me? It’s really neat. What an amazing career she’s had.”
Follow Rachel online at twitter.com/rachelgbowers.