Air Force's Smoke has a certain fire

FRANK SCHWAB Updated: March 15, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: March 15, 2010

Sophomore Tahlia Smoke is already a leader on Air Force’s tennis team. For a young and talented squad, she’s a solid example to follow.

Smoke is a good player. She already has accomplished something no Falcons player had before, notching a national Division I singles ranking. She was 102nd in the first rankings of the spring season.

That’s not her best quality. Her work ethic and perseverance got her to this point. She showed those traits before she was accepted to Air Force, taking the SAT test repeatedly until she got a high enough score to qualify. Her determination came through again when she battled back from a wrist injury to return at full strength this season.
So even though Smoke is in just her second year, it’s obvious why other players follow her lead.

“She’s setting the tone for our program,” coach Kim Gidley said.

Gidley saw it long ago. She saw Smoke play in a summer tournament when Smoke was improving as a high school player. Smoke had some maturation to do physically and as a player, but Gidley was impressed.

“It was kind of that attitude that she could play with anybody,” Gidley said. “She was a fighter.”

By the time Smoke, who is from Belmar, N.J., started getting more attention from colleges for her tennis ability, she had already decided she wanted to go to Air Force. The academy has strict admissions, and she needed to take the SAT 10 times before she qualified.

The hard work was worth it. Going to Air Force was her dream.

“I just decided this is what I wanted to do with my life,” Smoke said.

When she tore ligaments in her wrist in December 2008 and needed surgery two months later, the situation wasn’t ideal. But the Falcons knew Smoke had the mental makeup to handle six months of rehabilitation.

“I knew I had to work twice as hard to get back to that level,” Smoke said. “That drive to get back to where I was helped me.”

Her spirit appears to be paying off. Air Force has  young talent — the Falcons are 13-3, led by Smoke’s team-best 16-2 record — but Smoke said the team’s attitude impresses her most. She said the players are always practicing or lifting weights because they want to improve.

She’s humble about being ranked briefly earlier this season. When she found out she was ranked, she didn’t realize no Falcons player had ever received that honor.

Fitting her personality, she just figured that would help the rest of the team.

“When the girls saw I was nationally ranked, it made the dream a reality for them, too,” Smoke said. “If I can do it, they definitely have the talent to do it.”

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