Tennis teams eye Big Ten success

Dan Mirman

Normally a tennis team with a freshman at number one singles is in a rebuilding year.
But that label doesn’t apply to this year’s Minnesota men’s tennis team. With a solid mixture of upperclassmen stepping up and young players making an immediate impact, the 21st-ranked Gophers are poised to contend for the Big Ten title and possibly a national championship.
Off to the best start (10-2, 2-0 Big Ten) since its run of four straight Big Ten championships from 1993-96, this Gophers team could be looking to start another run.
“This team is pretty close in talent to those other championship teams, possibly even more talented,” coach David Geatz said.
He added that with a couple of breaks, his team could be undefeated. He thinks this group is a legitimate top-10 team, and his players backed up that claim with a narrow loss to sixth-ranked SMU. The Gophers fell by a point, 4-3, in a match that could have gone either way.
When it comes to surprises on this year’s squad, none can be bigger than the play of freshman Harsh Mankad. While the team expected Mankad to be a solid contributor this year, nobody could have predicted him to play as sensational as he has in the top singles spot.
“Going into this year we expected (Mankad) to be a quality three or four, but he has really stepped up to be a solid number one,” team captain Martin Michalowski said.
Still, this team has a lot more than one player; they are an extremely deep team as well.
“On this team, one through six can beat anybody on any given day,” Michalowski said.
Along with the solid play of Michalowski and Mankad, junior Jorge Due¤ez has stepped up his game as well and come through as a key number two singles addition to the team.
Geatz and his players believe this team should bring home the Big Ten title this year — if they continue to play hard.
“We’re as good as anybody in the Big Ten. Illinois should give us the toughest challenge, but the conference is very talented this year,” Geatz said.
The team has another big test coming up this weekend with an invitational in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Gophers have the fourth seed in a tournament that contains a top-10 team in TCU. A strong showing in Texas would help make the case for Minnesota to be a legitimate top-10 team and ultimately a threat for the national title.

Women’s tennis
The women’s tennis team has shown that they have the ability to contend for the Big Ten title this year, even though it currently stands at 1-1 in conference play, 5-3 overall. The Gophers’ single loss came to Ohio State — one of the favorites to win the division — who had to come from behind to earn the hard-fought 4-3 victory.
Despite the mediocre record, confidence is one thing that is not a problem with this team.
“We will be in every single match this year and we expect to come out of most of them with victories,” coach Martin Novak said.
Novak feels all Minnesota needs is a little bit of polishing to be able to make a run for the Big Ten crown.
His confidence isn’t unfounded, either. The Gophers have a solid senior leadership in the form of Nora Sauska and Kim Simonsen and they are aided by a trio of freshmen who have had a large impact on the team.
Sauska was a member of the of the all-Big Ten team last year. Simonsen is a consistent player and she feels that the play of freshmen Michaela Havelkova, Sandra Olsen and Amy Thomas has made a huge impact on the teams this year.
“They have put themselves in a position to be leaders right away. Unlike most freshman they are very vocal and have helped to make practices more intense,” Simonsen said.
“We can play with anyone; we are one of six teams who have a decent chance to win the Big Ten title this year.”
The Gophers’ hopes were bolstered by a 5-2 victory over Penn State last weekend. If they continue to improve and come together like they have, a Big Ten title is not that far of a stretch.
“(We’re) capable, very capable,” Novak said.