Freshmen duo gel on the court

Danny Chen

Before playing a single point at the collegiate level, two future Gophers brought their talents together at a USTA national tournament last year.
Playing together last year helped freshmen Caroline Ryba and Mehvish Safdar realize how good they can be playing for Minnesota.
“We knew that we were both coming to Minnesota, so we figured that we [would] play together for doubles,” Ryba said.
Now, the duo makes up the Gophers’ No. 3 doubles team.
Although Ryba and Safdar mainly played singles in high school — combining for seven total state qualifiers and two state singles titles — Safdar said they had instant chemistry.
“It’s always an interesting combination if you never played with someone before,” Safdar said. “But I think right when we started, we clicked really well together.”
Safdar, who is from Mason, Ohio, was the No. 51 senior in the nation and the ninth-best player in the Great Lakes Region.
Ryba was not far behind. 
The Glenview, Ill., native was the No. 68 senior in the country and No. 10 in the Great Lakes Region.
The two were considered highly touted recruits coming out of high school, and it didn’t take long before they saw action on the court as collegiate athletes.
During the fall season, Safdar appeared in nine singles matches, while Ryba played in 11.
Head coach Chuck Merzbacher paired the duo up briefly for doubles competition, and they won two of the three matches they played.
However, they were separated and then assigned to new partners for the remainder of the season.
It wasn’t until the 11th meet of the spring season that they saw court time permanently together.
And Merzbacher said he saw their chemistry then.
“Mehvish has really good hands at the net, and Caroline complements that with really good groundstrokes and setting Mehvish to approach,” Merzbacher said.
“It’s a combination of those two playing styles that helps them out. They are a tough out.”
Ryba said she and Safdar balance each other out.
“I think that what one of us lacks, the other one kind of makes up for it,” Ryba said. “We also get along great, and we always try to keep each other positive.”
In the 15 matches they have appeared in together in the spring, the duo has only four losses and one unfinished match, producing a 10-4 record.
Safdar and Ryba also had a five-match winning streak at one point of the season.
Merzbacher said his team has needed the pair’s success.
“It’s important to have good doubles [teams] across the board,” Merzbacher said. “If one team is faltering, we can get two teams to hang in there. I think those guys securing the three spot takes the pressure off of our [Nos.] 1 and 2 doubles.”
Safdar said the pairing has exceeded expectations for first-year players.
“We only had a few losses, and those losses I think we could have even gotten wins on,” Safdar said. “As freshmen coming in and not knowing what to expect, I think we did pretty well.”
And as underclassmen, there are things they’ll have time to improve on.
“Mehvish can [work] on getting a little more comfortable on staying on the baseline a little longer,” Merzbacher said. “And Caroline is improving on her net game.” 
But with that said, Merzbacher said there is a lot of good tennis ahead of them.
“I think the future is bright having those two,” Merzbacher said. “I’m expecting a lot out of both of them in singles and in doubles the next three years.