Minnesota’s doubles play looming large

The Gophers are 14-8 in doubles play so far with two duals left in Big Ten play.

Sophomore Caroline Ryba prepares to return the ball to Penn State in the Baseline Tennis Center Friday, March 18.

Kathryn Chlystek, Daily File Photo

Sophomore Caroline Ryba prepares to return the ball to Penn State in the Baseline Tennis Center Friday, March 18.

by Jack White

The Gophers enter the weekend in a five-way tie for sixth in the Big Ten standings, meaning every point is crucial as the team tries to secure its spot in the 10-team conference tournament.
The circumstances add extra importance to the doubles point in the team’s next two duals, and Minnesota is 14-8 in doubles so far this spring.
“I think we just try to find the teams that have the chemistry,” head coach Chuck Merzbacher said. “It’s very quick out there now. … Doubles has completely changed in college tennis. We went from eight games to six games … so there’s not a lot of points.”
The Gophers work on their doubles play through different drills in practice, which include volley drills, formation work and walkthroughs.
The team’s doubles pairings have stayed consistent in practices and duals throughout the spring, with freshman Annemarie Emme and senior Paula Rincon-Otero occupying the No. 1 spot. Sophomore Caroline Ryba and redshirt senior 
Julia Courter take up the No. 2 spot, and sophomore Mehvish Safdar alongside freshman Caitlyn Merzbacher are in the No. 3 doubles position. 
Emme and Rincon-Otero started out the spring with seven doubles victories in their first nine duals together. 
The duo has since dropped 11 matches in a row.
“We just got to get the No. 1 team back to where they started,” Merzbacher said. “There’s nothing wrong; they’re just playing really good teams all the time.”
The team’s No. 2 doubles pair has remained more consistent over the season, with senior Jessika Mozia occasionally filling in. The Gophers are 13-8 overall in the No. 2 doubles spot this spring.
“I am pretty solid from the baseline, usually,” Ryba said. “I think I have a pretty good return, and I can hit deep groundstrokes that will set Julia up to hit the ball away at the net.”
Safdar and Caitlyn Merzbacher have played surprisingly well in the No. 3 spot because neither of them play singles regularly. Together, the two are 9-7 in the spring.
“Our first game plan is, ‘Let’s get to the net before they do. Let’s get the first volley,’ and so I think we really complement each other in that way,” Safdar said. “[Caitlyn Merzbacher] has a good serve to set me up. And I think she really likes her backhand side, and I really like the forehand side, so in that way, we vary.”
The Gophers last two duals of the regular season come against Maryland and Rutgers at home this weekend, as the team attempts to secure its spot in the postseason.
“We have enough depth that we feel like we can always get three singles matches,” Chuck Merzbacher said. “We just feel like that’s our seventh player, to get the doubles point. … We feel like [if] we get that, we’re really tough to get more than three singles [victories] out of.”