Gophers solving doubles troubles

by Mark Heller

At this time last year, the Minnesota women’s tennis team was 4-1 in Big Ten play. The Gophers are currently 4-2 in the conference, but the team is hoping a second consecutive fast start won’t end like the first.
After getting off to a 4-0 start in the conference a year ago, Minnesota lost four of the next five matches. The Gophers beat Purdue in the final conference match, then immediately lost to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament to end their season.
In those five losses — four of them by a 4-3 margin — Minnesota won the doubles point only once.
But this year’s squad doesn’t plan on letting history repeat itself.
“Our chemistry is much better this year,” said senior Jana Hrdinova — one of three Gophers, along with Sitinee Rangsithienchai and Tarah Elkins, who will play their last home matches this weekend against Michigan and Michigan State. “Last year we lacked leadership. This year we have more experience, and our teams are having much more fun.”
Minnesota’s doubles play was a major weakness in last year’s slide, losing 4-3 on four different occasions during the Big Ten season.
But in four conference wins this year, the Gophers won the doubles point on three of those occasions and stayed in contention against Wisconsin last weekend because they won the doubles point. Minnesota ended up losing the match on the last singles match.
Gophers coach Martin Novak experimented with different lineup combinations throughout the fall and early spring seasons. Both Novak and the players have finally found pairings that work.
“We knew from last year that it wasn’t working,” Novak said. “If you look back in Minnesota tennis — even before I was here — doubles has always been good. I wouldn’t let up on (the players) about it, and I was always talking about the doubles play.”
Last year’s doubles pairings for most of the season were Nora Sauska and Rangsithienchai at No. 1, Elkins and Tammy Wang at No. 2 and Hrdinova and Jennifer Hayes at No. 3. They combined to go 11-17 in the conference and 29-30 overall.
So Novak decided during one fall practice to shake things up.
“We were doing practice matches,” Elkins said. “And he decided to try to put Nora and Jen [freshman Howard] together, and it instantly clicked. Kim and Jana were playing together, and they upset some teams in the fall season, and we could see this was really working. That left Sitinee and I together, and it’s worked.”
Novak said the pairings allow players to work with someone who complements their style of play.
“Nora relies on different strokes, the lob and return in her game,” Novak said. “Sitinee did everything pretty well, so their styles clashed a little. It was like a basketball team with three people playing man-to-man defense, and two playing zone.”
Rangsithienchai and Elkins, both of whom Novak calls “all-court players,” are 5-1 in Big Ten doubles this season. Sauska and Howard are also 5-1 in the conference, according to Novak, “by utilizing Jen’s strengths with her overhead and serves and letting Nora do the rest.”
With the Big Ten tournament coming up April 29-30, Minnesota appears to have found an answer to last year’s doubles troubles. The Gophers see nothing but positive things happening if they can keep up with what the changes they’ve made.
“We were stuck in a rut last year,” Elkins said. “We complained because we were changing all the time. But we have been happy with the changes and even happier that we’re staying with the changes.”