Women’s tennis takes lowest seed into Big Ten Tournament

Jabari Ritchie

Trailing Iowa’s women’s tennis team 3-1 with three matches left to be decided on Friday, Minnesota couldn’t afford to lose another match.

Late in the four hour-long match, all of the Gophers hopes for a win in the final regular season match of the year rested on No. 1 Valerie Vladea, No. 5 Kandis Batiste and No. 6 Brandi Watts, who was the only Gopher to win her first set.

Minnesota, which won the doubles point but struggled early in singles competition, got its first singles win of the day from Batiste, who rebounded from a first-set loss to Pascale Veraverbeke to win 1-6, 6-4, 6-3. But No. 90 Vladea could not finish her comeback against No. 97 Toni Neykova and the 55th-ranked Hawkeyes (8-11, 5-4 Big Ten) clinched a third-straight victory with a 6-3, 1-6, 7-5 win at No. 1 singles.

Watts, who was still in the second set when Iowa iced the match, lost to Jennifer Hodgman 7-5, 2-6 (10-8).

“It was a great fight,” said Batiste, whose win gave Minnesota its fourth singles win in the bottom three positions in as many weeks. “It could have gone either way. We played well and we can go forward from this, go to Big Tens and do well. We can’t be upset with how we played.”

The No. 72 Gophers (6-15, 1-9), who will be the lowest seed in this week’s conference championships, won at least two matches in five of their nine conference losses but only managed to defeat 41st-ranked Indiana.

Minnesota’s only shutout loss in the Big Ten came to No. 38 Wisconsin in its first conference match of the season.

“We’re right there with all these teams,” said Watts. “If Val had won her match, I would have played a third set and I feel like I could have won the third set. It could have easily gone either way and (Iowa) is one of the top teams.”

After the Gophers took the doubles point with Vladea and Michaela Havelkova’s third-straight victory and Andrea Rose and Kelly Perry’s 8-5 win at No. 3 doubles, Iowa stormed ahead in singles.

Havelkova, who has been struggling with a foot injury, was quickly defeated 6-0, 6-1 by Steffi Hoch while Vladea, Batiste and Perry also lost their first sets. Rose, the team’s senior captain, nearly took the first set from No. 108 Cassie Haas at No. 3 singles, but lost her final home match 7-6, 6-2.

“It’s tough after a season of so many close losses to continue being positive, but I’m very positive after this match,” said Minnesota coach Tyler Thomson. “I feel good going into the tournament. This match, and so many of our others, indicates the fact that this could go either wayÖ. Certainly I wish we would have won, but it’s just a matter of a few points here and there and that doesn’t mean that we’re not capable of beating these teams.”

The Gophers, now on a three-match slide, have a final chance to change their luck at the Big Ten tournament, which starts in Bloomington, Ind., on Thursday.

“I think we’re going to be doing fine,” Vladea said. “Right now it kind of hurts, but we fought hard and we’ll fight really well at Big Tens.”

Men’s tennis

In its final regular season matches of the season, Minnesota’s men’s tennis team boosted its standing for the upcoming Big Ten championships with wins at Iowa and Wisconsin. The 24th-ranked Gophers (14-6, 7-3 Big Ten), competing without captain and No. 2 singles player Thomas Haug, defeated the Hawkeyes (12-9, 4-6 Big Ten) 5-2 on Saturday and left Wisconsin with a close 4-3 victory on Sunday.

Leading the Badgers (8-12, 2-8) 3-2 with No. 1 and No. 6 singles both deep in the third set, Minnesota’s top-ranked Harsh Mankad clinched the victory with a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 win over No. 32 Danny Westerman.

Minnesota will be the third seed in this week’s conference tournament in Columbus, Ohio.

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