May 22, 2009

“Inches from greatness”: Women's tennis wins fourth place in NCAAs

The math of the Final Four can be unforgiving.

It’s a single elimination round of four, featuring the best teams in the nation, and at the end of the week, one team has to go home on a two-game losing streak. This week, that team was Chicago.

Wednesday morning, the Maroons were riding high into the Final Four following 5–0 wins over Grinnell, DePauw, and Carnegie, and even a team dedicated to the “one match at a time” strategy couldn’t help but dream of a championship.

Thursday afternoon, the run was over, with top-ranked Amherst taking a skin-of-their teeth 5–4 win in the semifinals and third-ranked Emory knocking off Chicago 5–1 in the third-place playoff.

“We felt a little disappointed because we were inches from greatness... Because we were so close, it was a tough loss for us; it just came from underneath us,” first-year Kendra Higgins said following Wednesday’s loss to Amherst.

At the same time, the squad that featured four first-years and just one fourth-year realizes what their fourth-place finish means for Chicago: a promise of better things to come.

“It was a valuable experience. To win it all their first year, that was our goal, and we’re disappointed that it didn’t happen, that we didn’t get a chance to play in the finals, but we’re optimistic about it. We look at the bright side,” head coach Marty Perry said. “When we have our first meeting [next year], we’ll say, ‘Okay, here’s our goal: We want to win the national championship,’ and we can realistically say that and mean it.”

With talent and youth, next season’s team is primed to come back strong, but in the meantime, Thursday morning’s loss to Emory—Chicago’s third loss to Emory this season—stings.

“It was disappointing having come this far and still not beating Emory, and this time the score wasn’t as close as before, so we were disappointed,” first-year Jennifer Kung said.

The Eagles jumped out to a 2–1 lead in doubles and never looked back. First-years Carmen VacaGuzman and Tiffany Nguyen notched the Maroons’ sole win of the day at three doubles, taking the match 8–6. Higgins and second-year Chrissy Hu came back from a 6–3 deficit at one doubles to go up 7–6, but they couldn’t hang on and Emory headed into singles play with the advantage. Chicago had faced a deficit heading into singles only once before, which was also a loss to Emory.

The Maroons struggled out of the gates in two, four, and five singles, dropping the first sets of those matches 6–3, 6–2, and 6–0, respectively. Higgins and VacaGuzman looked to make up some ground by taking the first sets at the one and three spots, but it was too little, too late, as the Eagles snatched the necessary three wins to claim the match—and the third-place trophy—by a score of 5–1.

“We walked out of there with our heads high,” Perry said. “We knew we gave it our best shot; it just wasn’t our day.”

Despite dropping the final two matches, the Maroons were fine finishing the year amongst the nation’s best teams.

“It was disappointing having come this far and still not beating Emory, and this time the score wasn’t as close as before, so we were disappointed,” Kung said, “but we were also really happy we made it so far with such a young team this year, and we feel like we can do better next year.”

Chicago returns five of its six-player lineup next season, and they are hopeful that core of talent can take them back to the Final Four. Still, the team is losing its captain, fourth-year Vindya Dayananda, who finishes her career with a 68–26 singles record. After qualifying for the team portion of the NCAA tournament her freshman year, Dayananda has brought her career full circle with a second run to the tournament this season.

“It’s such an amazing thing when I look back: It took three years to come back to Nationals, and I loved my team my first year…but this year’s been very different,” Dayananda said. “Starting with how much we achieved on the court and also off the court…I’ve never enjoyed playing tennis as much with a group of girls.”

While players like Higgins, Kung, VacaGuzman, and Hu played above Dayananda in the lineup this season, Perry said that replacing her as a leader on the team will be a challenge for next year’s squad.

“She’s been an amazing person to work with over her four years,” Perry said. “She was kind of the glue that holds this team together. She really transcended everyone on the team with her leadership style and personality.”

Fourth place wasn’t Chicago’s goal heading into the tournament, but the young team left Georgia having proved its mettle on D-III women’s tennis’ biggest stage.

“We definitely showed that we’re a really close team,” Kung said. “We always supported each other through all of our matches, and we stayed positive and kept fighting even when things [were] looking bleak, like today…. It’s good to know everybody on the team will play their hearts out for each other.”