Feeling like she needed some more match play as the 2018 season nears its conclusion, Michelle Sorokko showed up to the ITF Grade 4 tournament in Atlanta as an on-site alternate. The Douglaston, N.Y. native needed to come through three rounds of qualifying just to enter the main draw.
She did just that and more, powering through the main draw with five consecutive straight-set victories before taking on fellow American Briana Crowley in the final.
While she would come up short in the championship match, it was still a productive week in Atlanta.
“I haven’t played a lot of ITFs this year, and I actually only decided to play this tournament last week,” Sorokko said. “I’ve been trying to work on being more aggressive this year, coming in more and volleying better, and I thought I needed some more match play to continue working on some of those things.”
It was already a successful year for Sorokko even before she arrived in Atlanta. Back in April, she defeated three of the top seven seeds, including top-seed Hurricane Tyra Black, at the Delray Beach ITF en route to the title, one of the biggest of her junior career.
“I really didn’t expect to go all the way, to be honest, because there were a lot of really good players in the draw,” she said. “I approached the tournament by taking it one match at a time and I think that’s what helped get me through to the finals. I sometimes have a tendency to overlook some of the players I play and get ahead of myself, but when I take it one match at a time and really fight for every point, that’s when I play my best.”
After powering through the first few rounds of Delray Beach in straight sets, Sorokko dropped the first set in both the semifinals and finals, but found the resiliency to come back in each of those matches, something she is accustomed to doing.
“I try to be as smart as I can on the court, I like to read my opponent and see what their strength and weaknesses are, and try to adapt my game to that,” said Sorokko. “Sometimes that takes a set for me to adjust to know exactly how I should be playing…so when I do drop a set, I don’t get too worried because there’s still another set I can win, and one after that. That’s what is great about tennis. It’s not over until that last point.”
Being a cerebral tennis player is something that Sorokko has always prided herself in. She said she got used to playing great defense and forcing her opponents into mistakes because she grew up playing against older girls in high-level tournaments, and it is something that has worked for her.
The daughter of Russian immigrants who weren’t that much into sports themselves, Sorokko got her tennis inspiration from her older sister Kat, a former standout at Brown University who has been her younger sister’s coach since the beginning.
“Michelle is one of the brightest people I have ever met,” said Kat. “She has this amazing ability to read her opponents game and think one step out. It’s like she’s playing chess out there on the tennis court.”
Despite a 12-year age gap between the two, the sisters are very close which has helped foster a successful coach-player relationship.
“Michelle is my closest friend. My fiancée teases me all the time that he’s going to be second in my life after Michelle,” Kat joked. “I have been her tennis coach and mentor since she could hold a racket in her hand. We are extremely close, but we do have our occasional battles. Having a coach-player relationship with your own sister really tests one’s patience. There are times I have to remind her that when we step on court I have my coaching hat on. But it’s been an amazing experience. Getting to travel all around the country and world, and watching her compete and sharing these experiences with my best friend has been unreal.”
“I got into playing because of her, and she got into coaching because of me,” added Michelle. “She has been with me from the start and taught me how to play from the very beginning.”
Sorokko is one of the few blue chip recruits that still attend high school regularly as she is finishing up her senior year at St. Francis Prep in Queens. She trained at a couple of different facilities before settling on the John McEnroe Tennis Academy about six years ago, with Kat still remaining as her coach, which has really helped shape her game.
“It’s been great, I love it,” Sorokko said of being at JMTA. “This is the longest I’ve been at an academy. I came here in seventh grade and have been here ever since. The coaches are really great and they’ve given me some really great opportunities.”
While her defense has always been the bread and butter of her game, Sorokko said she knows she needs to continue working on developing offensive weapons in order to take her game to the next level. She made being more aggressive and coming to the net more a point of emphasis this year, and wants to continue growing as a player as she enters the last year of her junior career.
“I can always defend, but I have to get better at winning the point myself and that’s something I’ve seen improve in my game over the last year,” said Sorokko. “I’ve been working on stepping up the big points. When it’s a tight situation I tend to sometimes just rely on my defense, but I need to get better at attacking and taking more advantage of my opportunities during a point. And my serve is something that has always kind of taken a backseat on what I need to develop. I think if I can turn my serve into a weapon it would really help my game.”
With that plan in mind, Sorokko is ready for the next stage of her tennis career. She has verbally committed to the school where she will play her collegiate tennis, and plans to announce her decision towards the end of this year. She plans on doing some more traveling and playing in some more ITF tournaments in 2019, and has one clear goal in mind for this year:
“Hopefully playing in a Grand Slam,” she said. “To play in a Junior Grand Slam is something I really want to do for myself.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org