They’re two of the top players in women’s college tennis, and graduate student Ayana Akli and junior Sarah Hamner give South Carolina an outstanding one-two punch at the top of the singles and doubles lineup. While both are fierce competitors on the court, and each could easily occupy a No. 1 spot in most lineups, they’re great friends off the court who just want to win.
“We’re best friends, so there is never any tension or bad blood,” said Hamner, who started her career with a bang after winning the 2021 ITA All-American Championship in singles as a freshman but was hampered by an ankle injury much of last year. “Either one of us could play at one or two and still play well. I don’t think it matters who plays one or two. We just want to do what’s best for the team. I think it’s unique that we have such a great friendship and we’re both doing so well. It’s very special. We both work hard for things we want, and she’s really, really funny! She’s a great person, and I love hanging out with her.”
“It’s good that we have each other because both of us can play one,” said Akli, who was the national runner up in singles at the ITA National Championships last fall. “That pushes us. She’s ranked No. 4 in the nation right now, so that motivates me when we play practice matches because I want to beat someone who is No. 4 or No. 1 in the nation and vice versa for her. We get to push each other and it’s great to have that competitive spirit.
“Off the court, we are best friends. We’re each other’s No. 1 off the court. We go to each other for everything. I think that translates with our tennis. I feel pressure when I play doubles with her because I don’t want to let her down, but I think because our relationship is so strong, we can always just talk to each other to work out those problems.”
Both have earned First Team All-SEC and All-American honors during their careers. Hamner became the first Gamecock to earn the No. 1 ranking in singles during the spring of her freshman year and was the SEC’s Freshman of the Year after posting a 35-9 record in singles. While the nagging ankle injury last year couldn’t keep her out of the lineup, it significantly impacted her game. She still mustered a good year going 19-12 in singles and 22-11 in doubles, but Hamner wasn’t at her best. This year, she feels like she is back to where she was before the injury and went from a No. 25 preseason ranking to No. 4 by the end of the fall.
“It never really healed last year because I kept playing,” said Hamner, who is studying business and will focus on accounting. “It really inhibited my movement. I wasn’t playing with a lot of confidence because I couldn’t move well. It was really hard mentally, but I knew I needed to be in there for my team. It was mentally taxing because I had a pretty good freshman year, and I wanted to continue that. My teammates were really supportive.
“I did a lot of rehab over the summer, and I finally feel a lot better on the court. I’m feeling great now.”
“The most indescribable feeling in tennis is when you know that ball is going exactly where you want it to go.”
Akli spent her first two years at Maryland, where she earned All-Big 10 honors twice and was the league’s freshman of the year in 2020 before playing the last two years for the Gamecocks. She led South Carolina last year, going 34-10 in singles and 24-16 in doubles, primarily paired with Hamner. Having played in a pro tournament last summer, she decided to come back for her fifth year for two reasons.
“One, because of the master’s program here,” said Akli who earned her undergraduate degree in civil engineering and is working on a master’s in structural engineering. “But also because of the team environment. We have a strong core of people on the team that I felt like I could grow and develop with. We have a lot of potential.
“(Coach) Kevin (Epley) believes in me and is always pushing me. Kevin has a lot of wisdom and knows exactly what he is talking about. He knows how to develop great players. Working with him has been great, and we have a lot of great sports psychologists here. Those resources alone have made my game jump immensely. It’s a mental game, like chess. You have a lot of options and there is a lot of strategy. Everyone plays differently, and you’re by yourself. In tennis, it’s all you.”
She added that the pro experience and playing for a national title also fueled the fire to compete.
“Just playing at that level was good because it helped me recognize some of the things that I need to improve on,” Akli said. “It opened my eyes to a lot of strengths and weaknesses. With doubles, having to play with a lot of different people made me learn some new strategies and how to work with other people.
“Going to fall nationals was actually kind of rough because I was just coming back from a pro tournament in Tyler, Texas, so I didn’t have a lot of time to practice. I wasn’t all that confident going into that tournament, preparation-wise, but mentally I knew I had played in big tournaments. I knew I had to have what we call ‘Gamecock grit’ in a lot of matches, and no matter how you are playing, good or bad, you have to constantly compete.”
Even with the accolades and individual success, neither is content heading into the spring team season.
“It’s my last year, and I want to enjoy it and live in the moment,” Akli said. “Every chance I get to go out there is a blessing. Team-wise, we have a lot of potential. Across the board, we’re going to be a very tough team to beat. The thing I’m looking forward to the most is getting the chance to play with one of the best teams and for one of the best coaches there is in college tennis.”
“I just want to play my best tennis and improve,” Hamner said. “I can improve so many parts, especially transitioning and coming into the net, or my slice, or trying to mix up the paces. I need to work on my footwork. I could go on and on! Kevin is a great coach, and it’s helpful to have people on the team like Ayana who can play at such a high level. They keep me in check, so I keep working hard.
“I love to compete, and I love playing points. The most indescribable feeling in tennis is when you know that ball is going exactly where you want it to go. That’s what I’m always chasing. I’m excited because we have a few new girls on the team, and I think we can really do some damage in the SEC!”