Men carry momentum into Illinois

The women’s team will try to recover from its first loss in a month with two difficult tests at home.

Charlie Armitz

While the Gophers women’s tennis team has engineered a dramatic reversal from its disappointing 2011 season, the men’s team has put together a mid-season turnaround, which began a week after it lost its third consecutive match Feb. 4.

The Gophers were 1-3 in nonconference play — 0-3 on the road — when they won three consecutive home matches to boost their confidence heading into a two-match road trip.

They have since won four straight matches to extend their winning streak to seven heading into this weekend’s road trip at No. 53 Northwestern and No. 17 Illinois.

The Gophers moved up eight spots in the national rankings — from No. 44 to No. 36 — after upsetting then-No. 28 Michigan 4-3 at home last weekend. While they haven’t overwhelmed opponents with talent, head coach Geoff Young has put together one of the steadiest lineups in the Big Ten.

Minnesota is solid at all six singles positions and is one of the top doubles teams in the nation. The Gophers’ duo of Rok Bonin and Julian Dehn is ranked No. 22 and has been climbing the charts all season.

The Wildcats also field a balanced, deep lineup, while the Illini are stacked with two of the top players in the nation: No. 4 Dennis Nevolo and No. 31 Roy Kalmanovich.

Nevolo and Kalmanovich have combined for a 15-6 record playing at the first and second singles spots in 2012. But Young didn’t rule out the possibility of an upset.

“I feel like we’re competitive and have a chance at every spot in the lineup,” Young said. “We have a chance to win at the top as well, even though [the Illini] are very strong up there.”

Nevolo will likely face Bonin, who has returned to his regular No. 1 singles position after starting the year at No. 3 singles while he recovered from an injury.

Bonin took Michigan’s 10th-ranked Evan King to three sets Sunday before falling 7-5 in a final-set tiebreaker. His only other loss came Feb. 4 to Louisville at third singles.

“I think that playing at [third singles] gave me a lot of confidence because I won a lot of matches,” said Bonin, who is 5-1 at the No. 3 spot this season. “That has carried over to right now — I still have the confidence, and it helps me play good tennis.”

While Bonin’s game has surged in recent weeks, Leandro Toledo has been Minnesota’s most consistent singles player. He has won seven consecutive matches at Nos. 2 and 3 singles and risen to No. 80 in the national rankings.

Ranked Illini, Wildcats to test women’s resilience

Even though the Gophers women’s tennis team is healthy and on a roll, the task of winning hasn’t gotten any easier in recent weeks.

After tough road trips in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Michigan, No. 32 Minnesota returns home for the first time in more than a month to play No. 15 Northwestern and red-hot No. 21 Illinois.

The Wildcats have played 13 ranked opponents in a row and fell last weekend to then-No. 25 Nebraska. Prior to that, they had won 19 of their last 21 individual matches, including a 5-2 win against then-No. 45 Illinois.

The Illini have rebounded from that loss with four consecutive victories — three against top-30 opponents. Like the Gophers, they lack star power but wield a deep singles lineup that has played with confidence for most of the season. They have one ranked singles player — No. 124 Melissa Kopinski.

The Gophers’ lone ranked singles player — Alexa Palen — fell out of the top-125 after losing her first match of the season Sunday in straight sets to Michigan.

But Minnesota’s No. 1 doubles team of Natallia Pintusava and Magdalena Wiecha rose from being unranked to the No. 39 spot after upsetting Michigan’s seventh-ranked doubles team.

Playing higher-ranked teams is a challenge, not only because of the level of competition, but because of the pressure the players face to perform their best. Pintusava said the team’s energy might have been higher in its 6-1 loss to Michigan if not for the attention it placed on pulling off the upset.

Head coach Tyler Thomson has stressed during this difficult segment of the schedule that the Gophers can — and believe they can — compete with the best.

The problem last weekend was execution, which he traced to the team’s lack of focus on the court.

“One thing that we talk about on our team is just trying to stay internal all the time, which means not basing our actions on what’s happening externally,” Thomson said. “Those external things are typically the things that take you out of your game plan.”