NCAAs next up in rookie’s journey

By Tim Murphy

Sometimes help can come from the least likely places.

Riding the smooth swing of UAA Rookie of the Year Vindya Dayananda, 15th-ranked women’s tennis (15–8) will look to make history when they make their Division III NCAA tournament debut today with a rematch against 13th-ranked Wheaton (18–2). If the Maroons are to emerge from the Central regional unscathed and advance to the finals rounds in Santa Cruz, the freshman phenom from Kathmandu, Nepal will be a major reason why.

She doesn’t have the roots of a typical tennis star. Nestled high in an alpine valley in the foothills of the Himalayas, Kathmandu is barely 100 miles from Everest but light years away from the summit of the tennis world. Although there are a surprising number of quality American-trained coaches, the facilities are not up to par. The courts, which are few and far between, are all clay surfaces, as opposed to the famous grass courts of Wimbledon or the hard surfaces that are common in the United States. “The level of competition in Nepal isn’t very good. There were basically four girls and the competition would start in the semis of every tournament,” said Dayananda, who was born in Sri Lanka. “I was forced to leave Nepal and travel during the summer, and that’s where most of my exposure came from.”

Dayananda got into the game early, learning to play from her mother and quickly rising through the ranks of her country’s youth programs. Traversing South Asia and beyond, Dayananda broadened her profile by competing in tournaments against other top young players, raising her International Tennis Federation (ITF) world ranking to 656th at one point. She added to her experience by representing Sri Lanka in the Federations Cup, the prestigious international team competition.

“The Fed Cup is all about individuals. They’re all scrambling for the top spot,” Dayananda said. “But the experience was unbelievable. I saw the standard that I needed to reach, even though I didn’t have a great team experience.”

Faced with a non-traditional recruiting situation because most college coaches could not watch her play in person, Dayananda sent videos to colleges in the hopes of getting noticed. Her tape caught the eye of Maroons head coach Marty Perry, and the two stayed in contact. Dayananda made the decision to attend Chicago without ever stepping foot on campus.

“Her technique was very advanced and she had good fundamentals,” Perry said. “She possessed weapons in her forehand and her backhand and had solid volleys. I saw that she could be one of the best players in the country, and she’s living up to that now.”

While competing against world-class players presented its fair share of challenges, Dayananda found the transition from Nepal to Hyde Park to be difficult in a different way. Attending an American high school in Kathmandu helped some, but before the season started Dayananda struggled to get acclimated to her new environment.

“My first quarter was miserable,” Dayananda said. “It was really hard getting used to. Tennis really helped me get through it though. My best friends are all on the tennis team.”

Unfortunately for the Maroons’ opponents, Dayananda didn’t experience the same discomfort with a racket in her hand. Once the season started, she began to settle in both on and off the court. Although the switch from junior circuit to college tennis can be befuddling with its contrasting styles of play, it was a challenge that Dayananda and fellow ITF vet Anuja Parikh, a first-year from Bombay, met head-on.

“They had to know how to manage their matches. In college tennis, players don’t give up and they’re always willing to fight back,” Perry said. “They needed to know when to grind and play defense rather than go for the big shot. That was a big part of their development plan and they bought into it.”

“Going in I was just hoping to play good tennis,” Dayananda said. “I had no expectations in terms of ranking. All I knew was ITF. I wanted to use my experience and exposure and hope to grow as a player.”

After acclimating her game to the collegiate style of play, Dayananda and her teammates took off in early February and haven’t looked back. In one stretch from February 12 through April 7, the squad won of 14 of 15 contests, with the only loss coming 6–3 to 11th-ranked Middlebury March 22. During that period Dayananda went 11–3, with a 7–2 record against regionally-ranked opponents.

When the Maroons dropped a pair of matches to close out the Midwest Invite April 8, the then regionally eighth-ranked Dayananda outdid herself, knocking off regionally third-ranked third-year Lauren Hom of Gustavus Adolphus and following it up with a straight-set KO of regionally second-ranked Wheaton fourth-year Elizabeth McLellan. The wins vaulted her into second in the regional rankings, and all but guaranteed her a spot in the upcoming NCAA individual tourney. The NCAA announced Wednesday that Dayananda is an unseeded entrant into the field of 32 (See Sports Shorts for more details).

“Her confidence and the way she handles pressure are assets,” Perry said. “She is never too high or too low, and she never beats herself. And obviously her physical game is a strength.”

In addition to garnering first-team all–UAA accolades at first singles, Dayananda has put her versatility on display this season as well, teaming up with third-year Ade Omodele-Lucien to form a lethal combination at first doubles. The duo racked up a 20–8 record on the year en route to earning second-team all–UAA honors.

With McLellan (23–3) and regionally fourth-ranked first-year Jordan Hook (25–0), the Thunder present a formidable one-two punch at first and second singles. But it is the squad’s depth that is likely to give the Maroons their biggest challenge today. At third, third-year Kary Olson (21–7) is likely to give Parikh fits, while second-years Brooke Parrish (18–7) and Shannon Hale (19–3) and first-year Britney Dunn (18–4) will make things difficult at fourth, fifth, and sixth.

At first doubles, McLellan and Hook (21–3) will present a tough task for Dayananda and Omodele-Lucien. The road will not get any easier for the Maroons should they win the day against Wheaton. Lying in wait in the second round is host seventh-ranked Gustavus Adolphus (28–4), a team that dished out a 5–3 defeat to Chicago three weeks ago.

“We still have a chance to win at every position [against Wheaton] if we play well,” Perry said. “I don’t think we’re weaker now with the players we have. Katie has experience and she won the deciding match against Kenyon earlier in the year.”

With the Maroons missing a number of key players for various reasons, the team’s resolve will be put to the test in the first round. Second-year Michele Parad and first-year Jackie Colvin, Chicago’s expected fourth and sixth singles players, respectively, are both battling injuries. Colvin has been ruled out for the weekend as she continues to recover from a sprained ankle, while Parad’s availability is questionable due to shoulder tendonitis.

First-year Preetha Rajamani, a standout at second and third doubles and Colvin’s would-be replacement, will also be absent due to an academic commitment, as will classmate Alice Williams, who spent much of the season at fourth. Third-year Cassie Kramer, who has seen limited time this spring, will step in for Rajamani opposite Parikh at second doubles, and fourth-year captain Katie Dulmage will take Colvin’s place at sixth. “We want to go out there with that mindset that if we well we can win. If we do what we need to do, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing against,” Perry said. “We’re not going to look ahead. We’ve played both teams; we know what to expect. We’re focused on our half of the court.”