Game, set, championship

When first-year Kendra Higgins stepped up to the baseline for her final serve of the season in Sunday’s NCAA Doubles Championship Finals, she couldn’t help but feel nervous.

By Jake Grubman

When first-year Kendra Higgins stepped up to the baseline for her final serve of the season in Sunday’s NCAA Doubles Championship Finals, she couldn’t help but feel nervous.

It was a match for all the D-III doubles tennis jellybeans. She and second-year Chrissy Hu were well ahead of their opponents, the top-ranked duo from Pomona-Pitzer, with the score sitting at 6–1, 5–3 in favor of the Maroons and a possible game point of the deciding match waiting on the other end of her serve.

She had to just take a breath.

“At first it was nervousness and anxiety, like, ‘Oh my gosh, Kendra, don’t make a double fault, get your first ball in,’ but then it was just like, ‘You know what, play aggressive, do what you’ve been doing the whole time,’” Higgins said of the final game.

So she put the ball in play, with her Pomona-Pitzer opponents returning a deep lob to Hu. The second-year—a veteran on this year’s women’s tennis team—swatted it back to the left corner of the court and out. Game, set, match, national championship.

She and Hu had ousted four other teams over the three-day tournament, capturing the first individual NCAA Championship for Chicago since 2004—the first ever for Chicago tennis—and for a few moments, nobody, including the crowd, knew quite what to do.

“Even the crowd didn’t clap yet. I think they were waiting on our reactions,” Higgins said. “It was one of those surreal moments that you can’t really describe sometimes, but I’m going to remember it for all time.”

An inexperienced team that had entered the tournament unseeded, Higgins and Hu played nearly flawless tennis on the final day to win the title. The first two rounds, however, were hardly pristine. Watching his normally aggressive team, head coach Marty Perry knew the key would be staying confident.

But with the Maroons coming off a fourth-place finish in the team bracket earlier in the week and Higgins also competing in singles play, the pair faced a shaky start in the opening round. Mary Washington’s combo of Kate Malpali and Rebecca Morse-Karzen, who had beaten Hu and Higgins during the regular season, took the Chicago duo to three sets before dropping a 6–4, 4–6, 6–2 decision.

Another familiar opponent awaited in the next round when Hu and Higgins met DePauw’s Greer Mackie and Kayla Smith. After topping Mackie and Smith twice during the regular season, Higgins and Hu had their biggest scare of the season in a match that needed a third-set tiebreaker.

“There was one point in the match where were just like, ‘What are we doing? How are we going to get out of this hole that we’ve dug ourselves?’” Higgins said.

The Maroons escaped with the 6–1, 4–6, 7–6 (11–9) win, and the brush with elimination inspired a newfound sense of determination for the pair heading into the last day.

“On the last day, when they played the semis and finals, I think the reason they played so well that day, was because the previous day against DePauw they pretty much played scared,” Perry said. “Once they got past that, they realized that there’s no room for being afraid or scared in this tournament, and you have to just play 100 percent all the time without fear.”

The quarterfinal win left the doubles team as the only representatives of Chicago remaining in the tournament. First-year Jennifer Kung had dropped a first-round match on Friday, and Higgins’ trip in the singles bracket was cut short when she lost in the quarterfinals to the bracket’s number-one seed.

With the Chicago contingent cut to just the doubles team of Higgins and Hu, the Maroons met Carnegie in the semifinals early Sunday, defeating the Tartans’ Laura Chen and Ashley Herrick, 6–2, 6–1, to reach the final match.

“From the very first point, I saw it in their eyes that they were just going to be solid all day, and they were,” Perry said. “They played without fear, they put it on the line, and I think they really, really grew as a doubles team that day.”

A quick start saw the Maroons blow out to a 6–1 win in the first set, and while retaining momentum had been a problem for the duo earlier in the week, Pomona-Pitzer’s Siobhan Finicane and Olivia Muesse had no answer for Chicago in the second set. The Maroons were able to build a 5–2 lead but couldn’t convert on match point in the next game, giving Higgins the chance to serve out.

With Higgins hitting all of her first serves, Hu gave Chicago a 40–0 lead in the final game on three consecutive dropshots. Pomona-Pitzer shot back to make it 40–15, but Hu’s over-head smash sealed the match, 6–1, 6–3.

As the ball bounced away, Higgins and Hu paused a moment to wonder at their accomplishment: It’s the first NCAA Championship in Chicago tennis history, and only five Maroons had won NCAA Championships in any sport.

The brief silence gave way to a frenzy, as Higgins and Hu hugged before shaking hands with their opponents and basking in the applause.

“It was so loud after they saw how Chrissy and I reacted, and then we had people coming up congratulating us, and we got our awards; it was just a really nice environment,” Higgins said. “It still hasn’t hit me, I don’t think.”

The championship caps a strong season for the young Maroons, but Perry and the squad have their sights set higher for next season.

“It’s a good accomplishment for the first year of this young team, but I do think we can do better in the future,” Perry said. “I hope we can win a National Championship. That’s what our goal’s going to be next year.”