They knew each other’s names, they knew each other’s games and they knew each other’s slang.
Once rivals on the junior tennis circuit in their native England, freshmen Victoria Allen and Sasha Hill have become fast friends and treasured teammates while representing the future of the Florida State women’s tennis program.
They’ve also provided for each other a small feeling of home for a pair of first-year student-athletes living a few thousand miles away from family and friends.
“You already have something in common,” said Allen, who hails from Ashbourne, a small town in central England. “And if you have issues, they’re definitely going to understand. Just because they’re from the same country.”
“You already have something in common and if you have issues, they’re definitely going to understand. Just because they’re from the same country.”FRESHMAN WOMEN'S TENNIS PLAYER VICTORIA ALLEN
As of March 11, the day before the Covid-19 pandemic brought an abrupt end to their season, the FSU women’s tennis team was in the midst of perhaps its best season ever.
The Seminoles were 14-3, ranked second in the country and, just a few weeks before were an eyelash away from beating No. 1 North Carolina – with both Allen and Hill earning singles points against the Tar Heels.
Coach Jennifer Hyde relied on some key veterans to help make that breakthrough, but her two freshmen from the United Kingdom had a say in it as well.
Allen posted a 16-6 overall record in singles matches – including three wins over ranked opponents – and was even better when teamed up with doubles partner Petra Hule.
The two went 12-3 together and just last week were selected as one of 10 All-American pairs by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
Meanwhile Hill, a native of Bromley, England, near London, went 11-9 in single competition and picked up her first ranked win when she topped UNC’s Makenna Jones on February 21.
Things didn’t always come easily. Not only did Allen and Hill have to adjust to team-based tennis – as opposed to the sport’s more individualized culture in England – but they also had to adjust to living on their own for the first time, with all the cooking, laundry and bill-paying that comes with it.
All while their parents were five hours ahead on the clock.
Which is why it was so good to have each other. The two didn’t live together in Tallahassee, but had something of an anchor in each other while branching out into young adulthood.
“If you have any problems, I know she’s going to understand,” Hill said. “It’s little things like language and stuff. Like, Vic’s going to understand me if I say (something) backwards. Vic’s been there when I’ve felt lonely.”
Allen and Hill were plenty familiar with each other while rising through England’s amateur tennis ranks, competing against each other on more than one occasion.
But when it came time to take the next step in their careers – whether to turn professional or continue as an amateur in America – each was surprised to find the other on a similar path.
Allen, for her part, hadn’t given much thought to collegiate tennis before connecting with Hyde.
“I never knew I was actually going to do it until the last year (prior to signing),” Allen said. “I went on my visit (to Florida State) and was like, ‘Wow, this is probably the right thing.’ You see the support they have and the facilities. There’s just more options there than at home, really.”
Added Hill: “It was the sensible move, to still be able to compete and study at the same time. I’m loving it. … The opportunity, you’re never going to get it again.”
Still, it wasn’t until after committing to Hyde and signing with the Seminoles that either Hill or Allen learned that their counterpart would be coming along for the ride.
That news came as a big surprise – former competitors now turned teammates – but, Hill quickly noted, “it was also a good thing.”
“I was glad I would know someone,” she added. “Obviously I’d met the girls on the visit, but it was still nice to be so close to someone from back home.”
That would come in handy over the next few months as Allen and Hill got acclimated with their new surroundings.
“I was glad I would know someone. Obviously I’d met the girls on the visit, but it was still nice to be so close to someone from back home."FLORIDA STATE WOMEN'S TENNIS PLAYER SASHA HILL
It seemed like everything was tougher than expected – particularly the competition and the training.
Florida State recruits top talent from around the globe – all eight members of the 2019-20 team are from international destinations – and the Atlantic Coast Conference is undoubtedly the best women’s tennis league in the country.
As of the most recent ITA rankings, five of the country’s top-10 schools were from the ACC, including Nos. 1, 2 and 3.
Both Allen and Hill had to find another gear in order to reach that level.
“Say like if you’re here at home (in England) and you’re burnt out and you can’t do these next conditioning sessions or something, (trainers) decide, like, ‘You’re good, just take the day off.’
“There (at FSU), it’s so much different. All of us have to do it. All of us have to run and push ourselves even if it’s the last thing you want to do. I think I found that really hard to get my head around.”
The two found ways to support each other, both verbally and non-verbally.
After a while, it became easy to tell when one might be having a tough time. And just as easy to send a signal that everything would be OK.
“We kind of made a pact, where if we can see that one of us is going absolutely nuts, to visually tell them to just chill out,” Hill said. “Because there’s so much else going on, and we really don’t need to be stressing.”
It’s something of a cruel twist that, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, both Allen and Hill are back home in England – and thus farther away from each other than they would be in Tallahassee.
With collegiate sports on hold, the two spent the last few weeks adjusting to online classes while re-adjusting to England’s time zone.
That made for a challenging intersection when afternoon classes in the U.S. made for late evening classes at home. But Allen and Hill have made it work.
“When it happened, it was so shocking,” Allen said, referring to the season stoppage and the mad dash to get across the Atlantic. “We just couldn’t believe it was happening. And we left so quick. It’s going to be nice to get back and get into normality.”
No one knows exactly when that will be. But in the meantime, Hyde has kept the team together – wherever they may be – by hosting regular video chats and making sure to check in frequently.
It will do for now, but it pales in comparison to the real thing. Especially for two rivals-turned-friends in England who have realized that, in a painful irony, they likely won’t see each other again until they’re back on campus at Florida State.
Like the rest of the world, they’re more than ready for that day to arrive.
“I can’t wait,” Hill said. “I’m ready for it to happen now.”