During her first tennis lesson when was about 7 years old, Collegiate senior Helena Huff was asked by her coach what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her response: Serena Williams.
“She was so good, just physically amazing, so athletic, I was just in awe of her,” said Huff, who is undefeated this fall for a Cougars program that has played 10 matches despite constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Huff, the 2019 All-Metro girls tennis player of the year, on Wednesday signed her national letter of intent to compete at the College of Charleston. The “beautiful location and campus, the weather and the strong work ethic environment of the team” drew Huff to Charleston.
In 29 seasons leading the women’s team, Charleston head coach Angelo Anastopoulo’s 525 wins ranks 10th all-time among NCAA Division I women’s tennis head coaches.
The pandemic made the recruiting process hectic for Huff — “at first, we were all taken for a loop,” she said. Coaches weren’t sure how many scholarship spots they’d have available, but everyone she spoke with was supportive, and Huff ultimately ended up confident about her destination.
Despite her childhood idolization of Williams, Huff was not initially drawn to tennis as a young girl. She “had a lot of energy” as a kid, and tried different sports, including soccer, swimming and flag football.
Nobody in her family played tennis, but her grandmother had friends who played, and suggested Huff give the sport a try.
“I think she just thought it would be a good idea for me to get exercise because I was kind of driving my Mom crazy in the house,” Huff said with a chuckle.
Collegiate coach Allyson Brand said Huff, a lefty, all-court player with powerful, heavy-spin ground strokes, is one of the best players she’s seen come through the program.
“She is such a strong player, so humble,” Brand said. “She wants to be a team player; as soon as she’s done with her match she wants to go cheer on her teammates.”
Huff, who was born in Atlanta, last year left Richmond to attend Next Level Tennis Academy in Georgia. But she returned for her senior year, in part, because she wanted to experience the camaraderie inherent in team competition as opposed to individual training.
“Coach Brand sets the tone of what’s expected as a teammate, and we use that throughout the season, just being there for our team, being there for everyone because tennis is a hard sport being by yourself on the court,” Huff said.
“Emotionally, it’s very draining, especially if you’re not having a good day or you don’t feel like you’re playing your best. So when you have those teammates to cheer you on and just be there for you, you feel like you’re not alone on the court.”
The Cougars finished 10-0 as a team this season after playing home-and-home contests with Veritas School, Saint Gertrude, St. Anne’s-Belfield, Trinity Episcopal and St. Catherine’s. They’ve lost a grand total of four sanctioned singles matches out of 70 played. Huff has dropped just five of 105 games, and four of those came in one match against St. Catherine’s No. 1, Madeliene Carithers.
Huff is currently working to improve her second serve, become even more of an all-court player and grow more comfortable against stronger players. Brand said her fitness went “to a new level” after training in Atlanta.
Another reason Huff decided to return to Richmond for her senior year was a desire to live another year with her parents before heading off to college. They’ve been incredibly supportive, she said, particularly her father, who has over the years routinely driven hours on end to take her to tournaments across the country.
“I really couldn’t do it without him, even though we fight in the car almost every single time about the radio, he deserves the world,” Huff said with a laugh.