Close losses hurt U in Big Ten standings

by Mark Heller

The Gophers women’s tennis team suffered a major setback this weekend in its quest for a Big Ten title.
On Friday afternoon Wisconsin defeated Minnesota 5-2 at St. Catherine’s in St. Paul. Sunday produced similar results; this time it was a 4-3 loss to Northwestern at the 98th Street Racquet Club in Bloomington.
The weekend sweep means the Gophers have lost three of their last four matches, pushing them back to 5-3 in the Big Ten and 10-8 overall. This puts them in an almost insurmountable position for their conference title hopes. On Saturday the team travels to Illinois, and on Sunday to Purdue, before the Big Ten tournament begins May 1 in Madison.
Northwestern now has four wins in a row overall, and is 6-2 in the Big Ten.
On Friday the Gophers lost the doubles point when only Jennifer Hayes and Jana Hrdinova teamed up for a victory. Nora Sauska/Alice Rangsithienchai lost 8-5 and Tarah Elkins/Tammy Wang lost 8-4. In singles play, Sauska and Kim Simonsen posted victories, but they were the only ones. Wang lost in a close three sets, and Rangsithienchai’s last-ditch comeback in the third set fell short.
Gophers women’s tennis coach Martin Novak didn’t blame the loss on lack of effort.
“We fought well,” Novak said. “It’s amazing how over a period of four hours on six courts, how it comes down to three, four or five shots.”
That scenario played out again on Sunday. Once again, the Gophers couldn’t win the crucial doubles point, as they were swept in all three matches. This time, the singles play turned into nothing short of a dog fight.
Simonsen, Elkins and Wang had already posted victories. Sauska lost the first set and a nip-and-tuck second set, and Hrdinova also lost. Minnesota needed Rangsithienchai to win her match for the kill.
Rangsithienchai won her first set against Shannon Duffy 7-6 in a tiebreaker, before barely losing the second 6-4. With both players visibly exhausted, Rangsithienchai fell behind 3-0 before stirring a comeback. It wasn’t enough, though, as she lost 6-2.
It was Rangsithienchai’s second grueling match of the weekend. Friday’s match was also a back-and-forth affair of similar excitement and exhaustion.
“Alice’s match was gut-wrenching,” Novak said on Friday. “It was an offensive player against a defensive player, and the defensive player utilized the wind well, and Alice had to win every point. It takes a lot of energy.”
Sunday’s defeat marked the last home match of the season for the Gophers, and for senior co-captains Jennifer Hayes and Jenni Svehla, who was out for the season with a shoulder injury. Both were presented with flowers before the match.
Immediately following the loss, the players and coaches held a half-hour meeting on the courts.
“Triumph is try’ with an umph,'” Novak said in reference to what was said in the meeting. “We triumph in singles, but not in doubles for whatever reason. I asked them to dig deeper, consider the alternatives and bring it.”
With the Big Ten standings so close to the top, this weekend made things that much tougher for the Gophers. At least one victory at Illinois or Purdue is essential for Minnesota to have a chance at the top five.
For the Gophers to win this weekend, earn a top five seed and make a run in the tournament, Novak said they must improve the little things.
“There are still thought patterns and habits that we have to adjust,” Novak said. “I feel like a kettle: We’re boiling, but we’re not whistling. The steam is building up. It’s not a steam of anger or despair; it’s a steam of desire, want and trust.”