May 20, 2009

Women's tennis rolls to Final Four berth

Will someone, please, take just one match off of women's tennis? No team should make it to the NCAA semifinals by beating three straight tournament opponents 5–0.

Maybe not, but that's where the fourth-seeded Maroons (16–4) are after handling Carnegie (21–3) in Lawrenceville, GA, this afternoon. Once again, Chicago won the first five matches; once again, most of their singles players didn't finish—because they didn't need to; and once again, the team is moving on, this time to a final four match-up with top-seed Amherst (20–1).

"We played well, fought hard, and beat a really good team 5–0, so that made for a very good end of the day," head coach Marty Perry said.

As play began, it didn't appear that Chicago would run away with the match, although the final count against Carnegie was convincing. First-year Jennifer Kung and fourth-year Vindya Dayananda won easily at second doubles, but the two other doubles pairings were more interesting.

First-year Kendra Higgins and second-year Chrissy Hu, who played in the top doubles slot, were tied 3–3 against Laura Chen and Ashley Herrick before taking control and picking up an 8–4 win.

With Chicago ahead 2–0, attention moved to three doubles where assistant coach Jeff White watched the first-year pairing of Tiffany Nguyen and Carmen VacaGuzman fall behind Jennifer Chui and Cze-Ja Tam late, 7–6.

"It was just back and forth. Nobody could really gain an upper hand. I just felt like we were in control virtually the entire time, if we could just get one break and one hold...the match would be ours," White said. "Carnegie didn't just hand it to us; Carmen and Tiff had to go out and really get it."

As the match developed and some of the momentum of jumping ahead 2–0 started to wear off, Carnegie looked to turn the tide with a win, but Nguyen and VacaGuzman locked down to take the 9–7 victory.

"One doubles and two doubles, once we saw that they won...that really made us kind of really focus on every individual point," VacaGuzman said. "We were down 6–7, and we just played two amazing games. We had no errors, just really good points."

The late turnaround in Nguyen and VacaGuzman's match lightened the burden on the Maroons as singles got underway. Chicago needed just two more wins to clinch the overall victory, and Kung got the first of them quickly, dispatching Amanda Wu 6–1, 6–4 at the two spot.

Kung's match put a fourth tally in the Maroons' column, and decisive number five came courtesy of Hu just a short time later. Playing at four, Hu lost the first set to Chui, then put in a commanding performance over the next two sets, winning 12 of her final 14 games en route to a 3–6, 6–0, 6–2 win.

"It definitely took all six girls gutting it out, grinding out, whatever you want to say, and doing their best to give us a chance to win that," Perry said. "If a few let down, Carnegie could have won five of six."

Four singles matches were called early after the Maroons clinched, including first singles, where Higgins was up 4–6, 6–2, 3–0 on Laura Chen. The Higgins-Chen pairing was one of the day's most alluring. The two players, who hadn't played together previously this season, were both undefeated at first singles during the UAA tournament, but Higgins was ultimately honored with the conference's MVP award.

The possibility of rematches between Chicago's Kung and Nguyen and Carnegie's Chui and Courtney Chin provided another subplot for the quarterfinal match. The four trained together before college, and Nguyen, Chui, and Chin played on the same team at Monta Vista High School. This time around, Kung got the best of Chin and Nguyen edged Chui in doubles, but none of the group met in the singles rounds.

Chicago will face Amherst in the semifinals tomorrow afternoon. The Jeffs were ranked behind the Maroons for much of the season, but jumped to the top of the national rankings and tournament seeding after besting Williams in the NESCAC tournament on May 3.

Amherst hasn't lost a match since October, when Williams beat them 6–3 in Amherst, MA. Since then, the Jeffs have won 20 games straight, and notched two 5–4 victories over the Ephs, the tournament's two seed. They are, by all indications, well up to the task of taking several matches off Chicago.

"They're clearly a good team; they're tested," White said. "The key to tomorrow has to be doubles again. If we go out and we take it to them and show them that we're not afraid, anything can be done."

Williams and third-seeded Emory join Chicago and Amherst in the semifinals. Emory dispatched seventh-seed Pomona–Pitzer early Tuesday, while Williams overcame a 4–3 match deficit to eliminate Denison. Williams meets Emory at 8 a.m. tomorrow, a rematch of the April 3 contest that saw the Ephs take down the Eagles 5–4.

Now, however, Emory head coach Amy Bryant finds her team seeking their first title match since 2006, the year that concluded the Eagles' string of four straight NCAA Championships. A win for Emory could give Chicago all the more motivation to make Thursday's title match an all-UAA affair.

For now, though, they're just enjoying the moment.

"We just want to enjoy it, enjoy the time we have together because this is last time we'll have same team," VacaGuzman said.