May 19, 2009

Nothing to Lose

After sweeping DePauw out of the third round last weekend, women’s tennis knew a couple things for sure.

First, the season would continue at least another week and a half, until today’s quarterfinal round.

Second, they had a lot more work to do.

“The girls are really excited, but the job is just half done,” fourth-year Vindya Dayananda said. “We obviously deserve to be here—that’s not a surprise. It’s just a matter of establishing ourselves as a top team in the country.”

Chicago’s pair of 5–0 wins over Grinnell and DePauw at Regionals last weekend punched their ticket for Lawrenceville, GA, as one of just eight teams still alive in the hunt for the NCAA Championship. In the company of tennis powerhouses like Amherst (19–1), Williams (18–2), and Emory (20–4), the young Maroons aren’t worried about a lack of experience on the national stage.

“That works very well for us. It just means that when we go there, we’re basically the underdogs,” Dayananda said.

The most important week of the season starts today with a match against sixth-ranked Carnegie (20–2), a team whose only losses of the year have come against Washington and Lee and Emory, teams seeded second and third, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Maroons’ only losses in D-III competition have come against the same opponent—third-ranked Emory, which rounds out the trio of UAA teams making the trip to Georgia for the quarterfinals. While Chicago has been unable to decipher Emory thus far, dropping a pair of 5–4 decisions, Carnegie’s résumé is bolstered by its 6–3 win over Emory on March 1.

Carnegie also holds wins over a pair of other quarterfinals competitors, seventh-ranked Pomona-Pitzer (19–4) and Denison (16–6), and had been ranked above Chicago all season before a loss to Emory in the UAA title match sent them to sixth.

“Anything is possible,” first-year Carmen VacaGuzman said. “I think both teams are very strong, but we are very determined and, most of all, we are fighters, so we are going to go out there and give it our best shot.”

The teams are nearly identical reflections of each other across the lineup. Both start four fresmen, and the first-years match up at one, two, three, and six singles. The similarities continue to the older players. Carnegie second-year Jennifer Chui and Chicago second-year Chrissy Hu shared UAA Rookie of the Year honors a season ago.

While the beginning of what could be a great feud in the UAA over the next few years officially starts on Tuesday, the history of four of these players goes back to high school. Carnegie’s Chen and Chui trained with Chicago first-years Jennifer Kung and Tiffany Nguyen, and Chen, Chui, and Nguyen won Northern California state championships together at Monta Vista High School.

While the match is significant as a personal contest for players like Kung and Nguyen, as a clash of up-and-coming powers in the UAA, and as Chicago’s first quarterfinal match in women’s tennis history, Dayananda said the team is trying to remain even-minded.

“Going in, we hardly think about what’s going to happen if we lose or what’s going to happen if we win. We always just think about going in there and enjoying the game, playing hard,” she said. “The goal is always to win. Now that we’re through with the quarterfinals, the idea is just to see how far we can go.”

The Maroons emphasized the need for a confident start, something that Chicago was accustomed to all season. The South Siders dropped two of three doubles matches just once all season, a start that resulted in their first lost to Emory. Carnegie, meanwhile, has finished doubles with a disadvantage just three times all year, two of those coming in losses.

“I think the key idea is just wanting to be there, capitalizing on our opportunities…especially for the doubles,” Dayananda said. “We need to be prepared to face some adversity and at the same time just play our own game.”

Dayananda described the team as relaxed in demeanor this week but said that the practice schedule has been even more rigorous than it had been throughout the regular season.

“Everyone’s energetic and enthusiastic,” she said. “Everyone wants to win this week.”

Chicago’s match starts at 2 p.m. ET, and if the Maroons win, they’ll play the winner of Amherst vs. Gustavus Adolphus (23–9) on Wednesday. The championship and third-place matches are scheduled for Thursday.