Gophers tennis team in the running for a Big Ten title

Aaron Kirscht

The season is more than two-thirds complete, but as far as Gophers women’s tennis coach Martin Novak is concerned, things are just getting started.
After going undefeated through their first nine matches — including wins over Purdue, Illinois, Syracuse and Maryland — the Gophers have dropped their last two.
Still, if their initial run is any indication, Minnesota’s remaining five opponents are in for a rough time.
“I sort of look at it as a second season,” Novak said. “We just want to take the opportunity to close out the rest of the season strong.”
The Gophers (9-2 overall, 4-1 in the Big Ten) routinely play three freshmen and three sophomores and don’t have a senior on the squad. For such a young team, the future is bright.
And the future, it seems, is now.
“We want to become a contender for the title every year, and we want to be in the top 25 in the nation,” Novak said. “I think we’ve come to that point, and we still don’t have any seniors on our team.
“We want to be the kind of team where, after you’ve played us, you know you’ve been in a battle.”
The Gophers, who began the season at No. 37, have battled their way up the Rolex poll, the recognized rankings for collegiate tennis. Their current No. 28 ranking is the high-water point for the program.
Minnesota will host its final home game of the season on Friday, in a joint meet with the men’s team at the 98th Street Racquet Club in Bloomington. The Gophers will wrap up the regular season on the road against Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin before playing in the Big Ten championships at the end of the month.
Currently in third place, the Gophers are within reach of a first-ever Big Ten title. But Novak said the next five matches will be telling.
“We’re contenders,” he said. “If we continue to do our stuff and someone slips a little bit, we’ll win it.”
But recently, it’s been the Gophers who have slipped.
Indiana outlasted Minnesota 4-3 on March 9. The Gophers then headed to Hawaii for a spring break training trip. They squeezed in a match with Brigham Young in Laie, Hawaii, last weekend before returning home.
Minnesota lost 4-0 in that rain-shortened meet, and were swept in the three doubles matches. Novak is intent on improving the Gophers’ performance in doubles, where the team has hovered around .500. He said, however, that he was satisfied with his team’s showing. Minnesota’s singles record, meanwhile, is 97-45.
“We’ve beaten people with our singles so far, but we have to do better with our doubles,” he said. “We just have to take things we learn in practice to the court with us every time we play.”
Freshman Nora Sauska has ripped up the court for the Gophers this season, leading the team with a 20-1 record at No. 1 singles.
Novak said the recruit from Budapest, Hungary, is “young school-wise, but she’s a very experienced player,” having played and been ranked internationally. Sauska, currently ranked No. 40 in the nation, was named Big Ten Player of the Month for both February and March.
“It doesn’t surprise me that she’s doing this well,” Novak said. “I think she belongs in the top 15 in the nation, and as she gets up there and plays those people, she’ll prove herself.”
Sophomore Alice Rangsithienchai, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and all-Big Ten last season, is following up her quick start with a 16-5 record at No. 2 singles.
“Alice is as solid as they come,” Novak said. “She could play No. 1 on many teams and hold her own. And she still has a lot to learn.”
Novak admitted that this sort of success isn’t typical for such a young team, and added that the competition for the Big Ten title is stiff.
“Michigan is up there, Northwestern in up there,” he said. “It’s going to come down to basic execution of things we’ve worked on and who fights the most. That’s how close it’s going to be.”