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Lecanto's Roberts likes view at top

By CAREY FREEMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


LECANTO -- It was a natural question given Lecanto's losses at No. 1 and No. 2 singles.

Would Jessie Roberts, who had yet to hold the top spot in three previous seasons, be able to handle the pressure and pace of No. 1 singles?

The answer, it seems, was an unequivocal yes.

Roberts hasn't only handled the pressure, she has excelled in it, leading the Panthers to a 13-0 record and posting an 11-2 individual mark.

"I always felt like I would gradually make it to No. 1," said Roberts, who inherited the position when No. 1 Amanda Long was sidelined for the season with a back injury and No. 2 Ari Jendro moved out of the area.

"I'm definitely playing better now that I'm at No. 1," Roberts said. "Playing better people has helped my game a lot."

Granted, things haven't come to Roberts easy.

Knowing her role before the season began, Roberts spent much of the off-season in preparation for this year. Working with her mother, Joan, an instructor and Lecanto's head coach, Roberts improved the pace and accuracy of her serve. Plus, she developed much-needed consistency in her ground strokes and volleys.

But practice is one thing, applying those techniques in a real match is quite another.

Roberts, though, is a fast learner and has quickly raised her level to match that of most of her competitors. One key component in her transition has been her ability to quickly grasp the mental aspects of the singles game.

"I'm thinking more about strategy and how to beat my opponent rather than just keeping the ball in play," Roberts said.

"If a player plays a certain way, I try not to let them do that. If a person likes to come to net, I'll try to hit shots that keep them at the baseline. If they like to stay back, I try to make them run everywhere."

Roberts' only losses this season have come at the hands of Central's Jane MacDonald and Dunnellon's' Jenny Hernandez. The Lecanto senior has surrendered just six sets. She may get a chance to avenge both of those losses when the Panthers play host to the Tigers and Bears on Monday and Tuesday in their final matches of the season.

The big question mark in this case is MacDonald, the defending district champion who has been nursing a sore ankle since March 21. Central coaches list their No. 1 as "day-to-day," and nobody is quite sure if she'll be ready to go Monday.

Hernandez is another story. After losing in straight sets at Dunnellon earlier, Roberts thinks she is ready to reverse her fortunes on her home court.

"I think I'll be more comfortable at home," Roberts said. "I need to be more consistent and make sure to get my first serve in this time."

One area where she need not worry is doubles. She and teammate Mujiba Ansari are undefeated. In fact, the tandem has yet to surrender a set, marching with relative ease to a 13-0 mark.

One of the team's secrets is its chemistry. Whereas many doubles squads are thrown together, Ansari and Roberts have a history that dates back to their earliest days playing.

In addition, they have contrasting styles that seem to complement each other perfectly on the court.

"They do complement each other well," Joan Roberts said. "Jessie is aggressive at the net while Mujiba is steady on the baseline. Plus, they've played together and against each other a lot, so they know each other's games."

Jessie Roberts states no real preference between singles and doubles, which is a good thing since both are weighted equally in the dual match scheme.

"In singles, I like the fact that I'm in control and, if I mess up, it's my fault," Roberts said. "But it's nice to have a teammate, someone you can talk strategy with. Plus, Mujiba is real nice to play with."

* * *

Jessie Roberts

AGE/GRADE: 18, Senior.

FAVORITE ATHLETE: Pete Sampras.

FAVORITE FOOD: Cheese.

FAVORITE BAND: Jars of Clay.

PERSON SHE MOST ADMIRES: Joan Roberts, her mother.

QUOTABLE: On why she admires her mother: "She could raise me! (laughs) ... and because she knows what's important in life."

DID YOU KNOW?: Roberts is an accomplished singer who's involved in three separate state competitions. She will do a solo for the choral competition, singing Lass from The Low Country, and she will perform two songs with teammate Stephanie Monroe. In a separate drama competition, Roberts will perform Nothing from a Chorus Line.

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