Women’s tennis team looks for Big Ten title

Nick Doty

Gophers women’s tennis coach Martin Novak recently told a reporter, “You’re gonna see a lot of excitement this year.”
Novak’s comment about his team’s outlook showed great optimism, and justifiably so. The Gophers’ tie for third place in the Big Ten and bid to the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinals gave Minnesota its best season in the history of the program.
But Novak knew even before last season started that it would be a ground-breaking year.
“This is the year,” Novak said before the 1995-96 campaign began. He was right.
Finishing seventh four years in a row prior to last season, Novak has turned the program around. And he did it without his star No. 1 singles player Tiffany Gates, who suffered a severe shoulder injury early during fall competition and was unable to play for the rest of the season.
Gates has since transferred to Notre Dame — citing personal reasons — for a chance to be part of a national championship-caliber team. But Novak said because of the team’s success without Gates last year, her departure will have little effect on the team.
The fact that Minnesota returns five of six starters from last year’s squad, which went 16-8 (9-4 Big Ten), gives Novak a reason to feel excited. “I feel very good about the upcoming season,” he said. “We have a proven team that will contend with any team in the conference.”
Leading the charge of the returning Gophers is Alice Rangsithienchai. The sophomore from Flossmoor, Ill., enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign, compiling a 24-10 overall record while competing primarily out of the No. 2 singles spot. She is expected to replace Dana Peterson in the No. 1 slot this year.
“Alice is the No. 1 returner, but that doesn’t guarantee she’ll be our No.1 player,” Novak said. He said Laura Sauska, a recruit from Hungary, and Kim Simonsen, an incoming freshman from Pennsylvania, could challenge for the top spot.
Peterson, who was a senior last year, is the only player Novak loses from his 1995-96 squad. And Alice Han, a transfer before last season from Gustavus Adolphus, will be the team’s only senior this year.
The team may be young, but Novak says experience is the key. He said many of the team members have been playing in various amateur tournaments throughout the summer to prep for the fall. And all are on a conditioning schedule.
Jennifer Hayes returns with the most experience for the Gophers. The junior from Fond du Lac, Wisc., competed in 38 matches last season (tops on the team) and compiled an impressive 24-14 overall singles record. Hayes advanced to the consolation semifinals of the Rolex Regional Qualifier and was half of the Gophers’ No. 1 doubles team last year. Hayes teamed with Peterson to post an 11-6 doubles record.
Hayes is joined with Jenni Svehla as the only two juniors on Novak’s roster. Svehla of Naperville, Ill., started most of last year in the No. 4 slot and also played on the Gophers’ No. 2 doubles team. Svehla and Rangsithienchai were 10-8.
In addition to Rangsithienchai’s play, other Gophers freshman saw extensive action last year. Tarah Elkins of Birmingham, Mich., and Jana Hrdinova (Czech Republic) maintained the No. 5 and No. 6 slots respectively. Elkins put together a 23-11 overall record and Hrdinova was 18-11. The two frosh also teamed up to round off the Gophers No. 3 doubles team.
Novak is also high on new recruit Helen Wang of Burnsville and said his team has the chemistry to make a run for the Big Ten title.
“It’s gonna be a six-team race, and including us, any of those teams can win it,” he said.
Novak said defending conference champion Wisconsin will drop off a bit, but he looks for Michigan, Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern to improve.
“We’re right up there, mentally and physically … I’m excited.”