Improvement, not record pivotal for women’s tennis

by Jabari Ritchie

With a winless Big Ten record and three of its final five games coming against nationally ranked opponents, Minnesota’s women’s tennis team is focusing more on improvement than on the standings.

Struggling to adjust to a new system and first-year coach Tyler Thomson, the Gophers (5-11, 0-5) endured a rough start to the year.

“It’s been a challenge,” said Thomson, who was hired in October, midway through the fall season. “Fall season is traditionally the time for development more than anything else. Because I missed that I think we had a little bit of a late start with things with individual’s games and so forth.”

Minnesota opened the spring season on a low note, with a 7-0 straight sets loss to Kentucky on Jan. 25. Then, after winning three of their next five, the Gophers dropped five straight matches from Feb. 10 to March 8.

“We have probably the most difficult opponents in the Big Ten yet to come on our schedule, so it’s not going to get any easier,” Thomson said. “I – and I think the players as well – am just trying to think of the big picture rather than one match at a time. That’s kind of the way we have to go about things right now if we’re going to remain optimistic.”

Minnesota, which snapped a three-game losing streak with a 6-1 victory over Southeast Missouri State on March 19, took a two-week hiatus during spring break. The Gophers resume play April 5, with just three weeks of competition before the conference championships.

While Minnesota has failed to win many of its games, the team has seen improvement as it’s adjusted to the new coaching staff.

“Nothing will come overnight, but (Thomson) is doing a great job,” said sophomore Valerie Vladea, who has a 10-3 singles record. “As long as everybody plays well and works 100 percent – and we’re all doing that – right now we can’t really want anything more. Wins are going to come eventually as long as we keep working at it.”

The Gophers’ No. 1 and No. 2 players – 140th-ranked Vladea and junior Michaela Havelkova – have posted solid performances, but Minnesota has lacked depth this season.

“A lot of people are playing a lot better, but they’re also playing a lot higher in the lineup,” said Vladea, a 2001 All-Conference player. “This is kind of like a rebuilding year for us.”

Vladea and Havelkova have both competed at the No. 1 position this season.

“Our No. 1 and 2 positions are at a very competitive level with any team we play,” Thomson said. “(Senior captain Andrea Rose) may be a bit out of her element playing at No. 3. After our top two players our depth isn’t real solid, but I think Andrea’s made great improvements with her game.”

Thomson said Vladea and Havelkova could be a top 50 ranked doubles team while his No. 2 doubles pair of senior captain Rose and freshman Kelly Perry have “made great strides” as the year progressed.

Jabari Ritchie covers tennis and welcomes comments at [email protected]