WINGATE – Michela Verpelli toiled and sweated on the lowest rungs of the WTA professional tennis tour for over two years, finding just enough success to keep going but not enough to gain a real foothold. She found out a lot about herself while playing in front of sparse crowds in small cities in Italy, Romania and Egypt.
“It’s not easy, but it’s an amazing sport,” said Verpelli, a native of Milan, Italy. “You can grow up. It helps you as a person, because when you’re on the court, you’re by yourself. You have to make your decisions.”
One of those decisions was life-changing. In 2016, she decided to quit the tour and enroll at Wingate University.
More than three years after deciding to let tennis take her in a different direction, Verpelli’s determination and work ethic have made her among the most decorated student-athletes in Wingate history.
Last month, Verpelli graduated a semester early as the first All-American in Wingate women’s tennis history, an Academic All-American and a recipient of the H.K. Helms Award, which goes to the graduating senior with the highest grade-point average. She was also the NCAA Division II South Region Player of the Year in the spring.
“She left everything on the court,” said Michael Cabana, Wingate tennis coach. “And she put that same work ethic into her schooling.”
Going a different path
Back in 2016, Verpelli still had dreams of earning a living smacking forehands and serving aces. She decided after high school to give professional tennis a go, but her results were not up to her standards. She reached the main draw of a few Challenger Series events but couldn’t make any substantial headway.
In one tournament in 2016, in Romania, Verpelli held a big lead against a young teenager. Rather than finish the girl off, Verpelli said, she “played with fear.” Verpelli wound up losing, wrapping up a run of subpar results.
“While I was shaking the girl’s hand at the end of the match,” she said, “I remember thinking: This girl is probably 14 or 15 years old. Why are you here, Michela?
“After that match, I decided I needed to change something in my life, because tennis was not making me happy anymore.”
Verpelli rediscovered her love of the sport at Wingate. Playing with less pressure, she ran roughshod over the South Atlantic Conference. Because of her professional experience, Verpelli was limited to two years of NCAA play, but she made the most of them, going 19-1 in the South Atlantic Conference at No. 1 singles in her two seasons (33-4 overall). She achieved national rankings of No. 14 in singles and No. 11 in doubles.
Verpelli admits she didn’t have the mental and emotional make-up to make it on the pro tour.
“It was fun, but it was too much pressure,” she said. “I cannot deal with the pressure. Mentally, I was not the person to get there. Physically, technically, I can do it. But mentally? No.”
Preparing for a career
She had no such problem with her studies at Wingate. Verpelli credits hard work for her perfect GPA.
“I hear some people, they’re like, ‘I’m fine with a B. I’ll just study for two hours and get a B,’” she said. “For me, I know I can get an A. I have time to study. Why shouldn’t I do it?”
During her freshman year, Verpelli took an art class. Never before having had much interest in art, she took a liking to graphic design, so she added an art minor to her marketing major. Now she’s hoping that her post-graduation plans include working as a designer in some capacity, preferably an Italian company with an office in the U.S.
Verpelli gained valuable experience in that field over the summer when she interned at Ratti, a textile company based outside of Milan, near Lake Como. For three weeks, Verpelli did substantive work in Adobe Photoshop, manipulating the color and patterns of fabric designs that Ratti ultimately shipped to clothing sellers. She then spent two weeks in New York working on the other side of the business, in sales and marketing.
According to Debbi Brock, assistant professor of marketing, Verpelli’s superiors at Ratti praised her ability to “take the ball and run with it.” Her professors at Wingate have seen similar behavior.
“Michela is a gem to have in the marketing program,” Brock said. “She has a commitment to excellence in everything she does – going the extra mile for her small-business client in the integrated marketing communications course, being a leader, being kind and always humble.”
Finding one’s true self
Verpelli’s work ethic made Cabana’s job a lot easier the past two seasons. Verpelli was clearly the team’s best player, but she had the work ethic of someone fighting for court time. With Verpelli setting the tone, the Wingate team went 42-7 in her two seasons, reaching a high national ranking of 10th in Division II. Cabana was named NCAA Division II women’s coach of the year after the 2018-19 season.
“They followed her lead,” Cabana said of Verpelli’s role on the team. “I think it trickled down to our team, where it was bigger than one individual. It was more about ‘I’m going to leave it all on the court, not just for me but for the group of girls.’”
“I love Coach Cabana, because he didn’t put pressure on me,” Verpelli said. “He was just like, ‘I know you can play your best tennis, but just do the best you can.’ He’s an amazing person. He wants you to be not the best player but the best person. He cares for you as a person.”
When she decided to quit the professional tour, Verpelli was looking for a competitive but less stressful tennis situation. She found it at Wingate. Verpelli was also looking for a good fit academically, and she found that too. And she discovered herself. Back when Verpelli was pondering whether to continue on the pro tour, she remembers telling herself, “I need to find Michela. Who is the real Michela?”
“Wingate changed me in the best way,” she said. “I’m myself right now. I’m Michela. I know who I am, I know what I want, and I know what I like. I would do it again and again and again.”