Rangsithienchai to pace U at NCAAs

Aaron Kirscht

It’s doubtful that the following debate would ever find its way inside the fences of a tennis court, but it could be said that playing the piano and mastering the game of tennis have much in common.
When done correctly, both can be beautiful. Both require the right combination of tenderness and aggression. Both pursuits demand an attention to detail. And most importantly, developing the ability to make notes dance through the air — and make tennis balls dance across the court — is anything but easy.
It seems appropriate, then, that Gophers sophomore Alice Rangsithienchai spent much of her childhood exploring the delicacies and complexities of the piano before turning her attention to tennis.
“I played (piano) a lot,” she said. “I started when I was a kid, doing recitals and competing. I won ribbons, all that stuff.”
Her prowess on the keyboard led some to believe that she had “potential,” a word that’s listed slightly ahead of “prodigy” in the dictionary.
And after her arrival on the Big Ten tennis scene last season, which culminated with Freshman of the Year and All-Big Ten honors, she provoked plenty of similar observations.
“When she came in,” Gophers coach Martin Novak said, “people didn’t know how good she was. But we knew, and she knew. And she proved in a hurry that she was going to be around a while.”
Rangsithienchai had hoped to continue along a similar path this season. The proverbial sophomore jinx set in, however, and a foot injury slowed her in the offseason.
She recovered nicely, compiling an 18-8 record in singles, second-best behind freshman Nora Sauska (23-4). But the attention that followed her in her rookie year has been mostly absent this season, replaced by the expectation to perform at or above the standards she set a year ago.
“There was that pressure coming from outside,” Rangsithienchai said, “so I had to just keep working hard and paying attention to my game.
“The awards will come later. That’s not what I strive for.”
This season, Rangsithienchai, along with her teammates, strived for a first-ever Big Ten title. The Gophers fell short of that goal on April 28, when they lost 4-3 to Northwestern in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.
Rangsithienchai’s tight three-set loss at No. 2 singles was the clincher, and also probably cost her another spot on the All-Big Ten team.
“It was hard because I beat some of the girls on that list,” she said. “It’s no big deal, though. It’s just an award, and I know in my heart that I belong on that list. I can’t dwell on it.”
Like the Northwestern loss, as Rangsithienchai goes, so go the Gophers. She’s had her share of three-setters this season, and Minnesota has had its share of tight losses. But Novak remains steadfastly in Rangsithienchai’s corner.
“If you were to ask me what two or three players I’d like to have on the court in a decisive match,” he said, “one of them would be Alice.
“She just needs to show off her ego. I’d like her to realize that she’s more than an average player. I can tell her that a million times, but it won’t matter until she feels it.”
The Gophers, with a lineup dominated by underclassmen, look like a team that’s playing somewhere above their heads. The team’s — and Rangsithienchai’s — potential will be tested again this weekend, as the Gophers head to South Bend, Ind., to play Indiana in the NCAA Region IV tournament.
“This season’s been a learning experience,” she said. “We started out well, we made our mistakes and went through some tough times as a team. But through it all we stuck together, and we fought hard every single match. We know we have potential.”