Women’s tennis clinches first-ever title with two wins

Aaron Blake

The most pivotal moment this week for Minnesota’s women’s tennis team could have come when No. 3 singles mainstay Amy Thomas had an adverse reaction to a cortisone shot in her back.

But as it has done all year, the team pulled through the adversity on the strength of its depth. Because of this, Minnesota’s turning point came when Ohio State’s Sadhaf Pervez’s return at the end of her match with Angela Buergis hit the net and fell to the ground.

A 4-3 victory over Ohio State on Saturday clinched at least a tie for the 31st-ranked Gophers’ first-ever Big Ten regular season title. Sunday’s less-dramatic but equally-effective 4-3 win made sure Minnesota (16-5, 9-1 Big Ten) would not have to share the accolade with anyone else, finishing alone atop the conference.

“To be honest with you, nothing this team does surprises me anymore,” coach Tyler Thomson said. “As they’ve done all year, they just came out and poured their hearts out on the court. That’s the most redeeming thing about this team.”

Thomson’s team has won the unprecedented title despite recovering from an arduous 1-9 conference mark in 2002 and injuries to junior Jeannette Cluskey early in the season and Thomas this past week.

The additions of Buergis, a transfer from William & Mary, and Nischela Reddy, a freshman from Hyderabad, India, have surely helped. But Reddy sees something more to this team’s Big Ten title run than simply the added talent.

“I’m not sure if it’s just (me and Buergis),” Reddy said. “We have contributed to the success. I’m not saying we haven’t. But I think the team as a whole has just come together this year, and that’s made a huge difference.”

This weekend the team came together with an altered lineup which bumped senior Michaela Havelkova from No. 4 singles to Thomas’s No. 3 spot, Reddy from No. 5 to No. 4, junior Brandi Watts from No. 6 to No. 5, and little-used Kandis Batiste into the lineup at No. 6.

Initially, losing Thomas for the match against the 43rd-ranked Buckeyes (12-9, 6-3) wreaked havoc on the Gophers’ doubles pairings.

Though Buergis and Reddy continued their partnership in victory at No. 2, the makeshift combination of Havelkova and Valerie Vladea struggled to an 8-3 loss versus Pervez and Lindsay Williams at No. 1.

Batiste and Watts, who had no experience together in conference play, also fell 8-3 to Lindsey Adams and Meaghan Colville at No. 3, giving Ohio State the doubles point and early momentum.

Reddy and Vladea each made quick work of their opponents in singles. Reddy beat Williams 6-1, 6-3 first and Vladea followed shortly with a 7-5, 6-0 win over Erica Fisk at No. 2.

With Batiste falling to Lindsay Bryan 7-5, 6-0, the score was knotted at two apiece.

Watts then defeated Emily DeCamilla 7-6, 6-3 to put the Gophers on top 3-2, needing either Havelkova or Buergis to win and make some history.

Havelkova initially looked to be the one, having a late advantage in the second set after winning the first against Jackie Leskovar. But she would falter ever so slightly and leave things up to Buergis.

With Havelkova’s match still in a third set, Buergis won her match against the 46th-ranked Pervez to give the Gophers their fourth point and clinch a share of the title.

Sunday’s match would not be such a nail-biter, and Minnesota claimed the title for itself with relative ease versus the Lions of Penn State (7-13, 2-8).

Thomson juggled the doubles pairings and saw instant results and a better starting block for his team.

Buergis and Reddy beat Maaria Husain and Leigh Ann Merryman 8-5 at No. 1; Havelkova teamed with Watts for an 8-6 win over Megan Marton and Judy Wang at No. 2; and sophomore Cici Anderson saw her first Big Ten action, teaming with Vladea for an 8-4 victory over Lindsay Downing and Sarah Spence at No. 3.

With the doubles point under their belts, the Gophers made quick work of the Lions.

Vladea beat Merryman in a hurry 6-2, 6-4 and Reddy wasn’t far behind, winning 6-3, 6-2 over Wang.

Buergis again played the role of the clincher, knocking off Marton 6-2, 6-4 next to give Minnesota a 4-1 advantage and a Big Ten title to call its own.

With her team getting by while she rested up for next weekend’s Big Ten tournament, Thomas maintained she never doubted her team would adjust to a weekend without her.

“It’s always disappointing not playing,” Thomas said. “But I knew they could win without me. And since we won, it isn’t so bad. I knew we’d do it.”

And so they have done it – for the first time in program history and following a rough and rebuilding 2002.

No matter where it goes from here, one thing is for sure – neither Thomson nor Thomas is going to be surprised, and very few others should be.

Men split matches out east

Minnesota’s men’s tennis team (18-4, 8-2 Big Ten) lost Saturday at Ohio State 4-3 but rallied to win at Penn State 6-0 on Sunday before the match was ended early due to time constraints.

“The main thing for us this weekend was finishing it in the top 16 in the country,” coach Dave Geatz said. “I think we did that, so we should be able to host a regional in the NCAA tournament.”

Seniors Thomas Haug and Manuel Lievano each fell at No. 1 and 4 singles, respectively against the 23rd-ranked Buckeyes. Vince Ng beat Gopher Chris Wettengel at No. 2, and Ohio State (18-5, 8-1) took the doubles point from the Gophers as well in the victory.

Versus the 66th-ranked Lions, Minnesota’s top five singles players all won in straight sets and the team won Nos. 1 and 2 doubles as well. Clay Estes’s singles match and the No. 3 doubles match were both cut short because of the Gophers’ scheduled flight back to Minnesota.

Aaron Blake covers tennis and welcomes comments at [email protected]