A strong serve on match point — left-handed, with a bit of spin — and the opponent is thrown off. The return is slow, and Cal women’s tennis junior Erin Richardson pulls out a down the line forehand winner. Boom: Game, set, match.
Skilled in both singles and doubles, Richardson shines on the court. But what truly makes her stand out as an athlete is her mindset.
In tennis, your mind is your most important asset. Even with all of the talent in the world, your head needs to be in the game. It can make or break a point, a match or even a championship. The combination of determination and hard work, while also having an eye for technique, is the recipe for a great tennis player.
Always looking to improve and challenge herself, Richardson has her eye on the prize — ever since she was young, that prize was playing in junior Wimbledon. Participating in such a prestigious tournament is a huge goal, especially as an English player. To achieve that goal twice is an impressive feat.
The first time did not go so smoothly: A knee injury just weeks prior put a big question mark on her potential to attend, let alone do well. The second time around, however, Richardson had the greatest win of her career.
“To win the first round at Wimbledon as a Brit, with the crowd behind you, was the coolest thing,” she said. “I will never forget that match — that was the happiest I’ve ever been. That is probably forever going to be the best moment in my tennis career.”
Richardson first picked up a racket when she was six. Without any immediate family members who played tennis, she was introduced to the sport when some local coaches came to her elementary school to scout young potential.
Eventually, as she kept playing, Richardson found herself participating in more international tournaments. Her first was at just 14 years old. Before she knew it, the young athlete was traveling across the world to play tennis, going as far as India and Taiwan.
At the same time, Richardson was also attending one of the best tennis academies in the country. She was surrounded by determined, hard-working athletes, and flew under the radar until she started competing at an international level.
For many, being surrounded by such a large number of talented players with the same goals would be an immense amount of pressure. For most, it would be too much to handle. For Richardson, however, the competition gave her something to work towards.
Rather than holding her back, it motivated her.
“I always had something to push towards. I was never happy being where I was because there were always people better, doing more. I wanted to be doing what they were doing. Subconsciously, that made me push more,” she said.
Growing up, Richardson also had another goal: to play tennis for a U.S. college. The opportunity for female athletes to continue sports at such a high level, all while maintaining academic rigor, was something she could not pass up.
Though when it came to recruitment, the process was long and hectic. Richardson flew out three separate times for visits, with Cal and Georgia Tech being her two last in May 2019.
“I knew before I stepped onto campus that if they offered me I wasn’t gonna say no,” she said. “I just kind of knew this is where I wanted to be. Georgia Tech was great, they actually exceeded my expectations, but I just knew I couldn’t be swayed.”
And so, Richardson committed to one of the nation’s best colleges for women’s tennis. With a newcomer ranking under her belt, she was ready to make a mark. But the road wasn’t exactly smooth.
While having the skill to be a great asset on the court, mentality was her biggest barrier — soon to become a crucial asset. Richardson experienced what she described as a mental block.
Coming into such a strong team as a freshman, she said, made it difficult to bring your best — with so many great players, it’s tough to step up each time. This continued after the team returned from the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of her sophomore year. Struggling with mentality and her nerves, Richardson wasn’t able to meet the expectations she set for herself.
“I mentally struggled with my nerves,” she said. “I had this mental block when I was going into the spring last year, and that really affected my tennis.”
She then had a reset. Working hard on both her fitness and her confidence, she started asserting herself on the court.
“I’ve got a bit more trust that my level is there, that’s not going to change, and it’s definitely helped me bring better tennis,” she said. “If you commit to your game, it will be a lot more successful than if you hesitate, step back and then get nervous. I just wasn’t able to see past that last year.”
She also became more vocal. Being outspoken on the court helped bring confidence to her game. With this fresh start, Richardson has been playing increasingly more singles matches for Cal.
After her first dual singles match, and win, of the season, Richardson couldn’t contain her excitement. She said she wanted to go out and do everything that she could for the team — to be on the same scoreboard as everyone else.
“She’s been through a lot, being at Cal,” said Richardson’s close friend and teammate Valentina Ivanov. “For her, it just means a lot to get a chance to play and show all her hard work has paid off.”
When it came to mental strength, Richardson learned by watching the best of the best. Rafael Nadal, Richardson’s idol and fellow lefty, is known for his perseverance. The way he fights and puts everything out there is something she finds admirable.
The confidence doesn’t just end on the court, though. Good tennis players are able to translate their mentality off the court as well. To Richardson, overcoming obstacles on the court gives you faith to take on challenges in other areas of life.
Cal women’s tennis head coach Amanda Augustus described Richardson as having grown into a “quiet leader.” With a good attitude and readiness to work, Richardson leads by example.
“Erin has grown a lot,” Augustus said. “She’s been improving because she’s learned how to be really open to coaching and push herself harder. She was already a really good player before she came, but her confidence is continuing to grow more and more.”
Wishing she could speak to her 14-year-old self, Richardson would say “just go for it.” If you did something you believed in, and committed to what you thought was right, you won’t have to live with regret.
As Richardon’s third year at Cal comes to an end, and as she stands on the horizon of her senior year, she looks towards other prospects. An economics major, Richardson fell in love with the world of finance through her Introduction to Finance class last semester.
After college, though, Richardson is keeping her options open. A professional career isn’t out of the question.
“I am just going to see how I feel. I’ve really been enjoying tennis a lot more this semester, especially (since) my body’s been holding up better. And my mentality has shifted a bit, so I wouldn’t rule anything out,” she said.
Whatever she does, Richardson will be sure to take her attitude and confidence with her.