April 24, 2009

Can Chicago break the streak?

Emory has an okay women’s tennis team.They were pretty okay back in 1988, when they won the inaugural UAA Championship. Then they won again the next year and the next year and the next year. 21 times, the collection of schools in the UAA have gathered to fight for women’s tennis crown, and 21 times, Emory has emerged victorious.“They’ve never lost; history tells that story,” Chicago head coach Marty Perry said.Some seasons, it’s been a foregone conclusion: Emory continues to add onto its streak, and the rest of the conference plays for second.This year, though, the 21-time defending champs find themselves in a new place: the second seed. As the fourth-ranked team in the country, Emory (15–4) is sandwiched between third-ranked Carnegie (17–1) and fifth-ranked Chicago (12–3) in one of the most dominant seasons in UAA history. With three of top five teams in the country coming together, this weekend means a war of national proportions.“Some years, winning the UAA championship was bittersweet because there wasn’t any competition at all for our team,” Emory head coach Amy Bryant said. “Now, it’s definitely going to be a battle.”After two decades of championships, the Eagles’ reign at the top could be coming to an end, and the young Maroons could be the ones to dethrone them.“We feel like if we go there and play well, we have a shot to win the championship,” Perry said.The difference between the top three teams is miniscule, and it would be hard to name one as the definitive favorite. Sometimes, though, “underdog” is a better title to have, and both Chicago and Emory are jockeying for that spot and the nothing-to-lose attitude that goes with it.In the past, Emory would be hard-pressed to lay claim to the title of underdog. Their résumé features two decades of league championships and five national titles, as close to perfect as tennis gets in the UAA. Then, on March 1, something funny happened: Emory lost to Carnegie. “[Emory is] going in as a little bit of the underdog in their own mind,” Perry said. “I think that’s their own motivation to win….”Chicago’s path, meanwhile, has been a unique story since before the season started.The Maroons thought they had something special when they looked at the class of 2012. After a 2008 campaign that concluded in a third-place finish at UAAs, Chicago brought in a new wave of players. A team building a tradition of strong first-years, with UAA Rookie of the Year honors the past three seasons, had done it again, just on a much larger scale: seven freshmen, four of whom would make an immediate impact.The winning started almost immediately. First-year Jennifer Kung went all the way to the ITA Small College Championships in October and won. The quiet freshman had shown the first signs that, yes, this would be a special season.The Maroons started the season ranked 15th in the country, but they knew that talent alone couldn’t push them to the top of women’s tennis. A tough schedule early on, featuring two 0–7 losses to D-I schools, gave the team a lesson in humility, the last piece of the puzzle. “We’ve matured a lot; that’s kind of what we needed,” Perry said. “We knew we had the talent before they even got here; it’s just how they would mature this year.”After a rocky start against D-I schools, the Maroons rattled off seven straight wins in D-III play and found themselves ranked in the top five in the country.In any other conference, the Maroons would have trouble painting themselves as underdogs, too. In a crowd that includes Carnegie and Emory, though, Chicago has the best case.This is a team that has just one fourth-year, captain Vindya Dayananda. That means that five of the Maroons’ usual six weren’t yet born when Emory’s winning streak started.Over the course of the year, however, Chicago has never let youth or inexperience interrupt determination.“We have a great presence on the court that we know many other teams see,” first-year Kendra Higgins said. “I believe that’s a great strength of ours.”Perry describes his team as if it’s a group of veterans; he talks about their focused practices, their hustle on the court, and their commitment to the team. They’ll need that kind of focus if and when they meet Emory in the semifinals, especially considering Emory already boasts one win over the Maroons this season.In a heavyweight bout to cap off spring break, Chicago met Emory at Emory on March 29, and both teams brought their best games. Emory wound up edging Chicago 5–4, but the match left both teams eager for a rematch at UAAs.“Chicago is a great team, and we competed well at each spot,” Bryant said. “They are definitely a team that I would have preferred to stay away from with a conference matchup. But I know we’ll have another great match. I think the team that wins our potential semifinal matchup will win the whole tournament.”If Chicago beats Emory in the second round, it will at least match the Maroons’ best result in conference history, a second-place finish in 1995.But the Maroons—those grizzled veterans that they are—aren’t looking that far ahead. Ever since the season started, it’s been one match at a time, one game a time, one point at a time.“Our girls this year have been very consistent with the level of intensity they bring. They don’t really get up for one match or down for one match,” Perry said. “They seem to compete the same way all the time, and I think that’s been one of the things that’s helped them do as well as they have this year.”By the time this hits newsstands, Chicago’s first-round match against Rochester could already be going on, and the scene should be set. Carnegie brings the best record in the conference, Emory brings a 21-year winning streak, and Chicago brings the fresh faces. In the best year the UAA has had in women’s tennis, the Maroons know this weekend will be a fight to the finish.“Tennis is a game that, on any given day, anyone can win,” Higgins said.