No. 11 women's tennis strives to be the best
Freshman Julia Elbaba moved quickly along the baseline of an indoor court at the Boar’s Head Sports Club Monday, her shuffle-steps efficient yet forceful and her open-stance air-strokes explosive with torque. Across the net, senior teammate Erin Vierra worked through the same pattern. There were no fans in the bleachers, no opponents to defeat, and the No. 11 Virginia women’s tennis team was not even hitting balls.
Practice was almost at an end, and the players displayed signs of exhaustion. When asked to repeat the footwork drill, however, they moved at full speed. There was no time to drag. The team had not trained together in a month, and the Cavaliers’ season-opening tournament against No. 13 Northwestern, No. 23 Tennessee and Utah in the UVa Winter Invitational this weekend loomed large.
“We’ve come off a long break,” Virginia coach Mark Guilbeau said. “The way the NCAA rules are structured, these kids miss a lot of training with us in particular. They do a good job away from here, but it’s never the same, and so, number one, the first expectation is to get back here today and do what we started to do, which is work really hard.”
The Cavaliers’ focus and drive come as much from the team’s newcomers as its veterans. On a team with just four starters from last year’s 20-win squad — Vierra, fellow seniors Maria Fuccillo and Hana Tomljanovic and junior Li Xi — three freshmen have made significant contributions. Elbaba finished second in the ITA All-American Championships, one of college tennis’ major tournaments, last fall. Fellow freshman Stephanie Nauta is ranked No. 43 in the NCAA in singles. Maci Epstein completes the freshman trio and pairs with Vierra for the highest-ranked doubles team — No. 5 — in Virginia history.
“The freshmen have brought so much to the table, not just from a tennis standpoint, but they’re all actually very mature as far as freshmen come,” Vierra said. “They’re very, very serious about their games, and they’re just great teammates so far, so we haven’t had to do much with bringing them along.”
Virginia’s more experienced players have worked well alongside their younger teammates. Xi is ranked one slot below Nauta in the NCAA singles rankings at No. 44, and Vierra’s skill in doubles has helped the Cavaliers turn a setback into success.
“Maci and I got paired together relatively late because my partner, Hana, was very sick all fall with pneumonia,” Vierra said. “So, going into our regional tournament we didn’t really have high expectations. Maci hadn’t played a lot of doubles, and I love doubles, but it was just a new pairing. And then, we had pretty good success right away, good chemistry, and we just matched-up well.”
Virginia hopes the chemistry holds past this weekend. The UVa Winter Invitational is Virginia’s final chance for competition before the spring season begins in full with the team’s first match scheduled for Feb. 1 at Virginia Commonwealth. Though the tournament designates one singles and one doubles champion, rather than a winning school, it involves players all the way down the lineup.
“You couldn’t have better preparation,” Guilbeau said.
This weekend’s opponents present much-welcomed challenges to the Cavaliers as they prepare for competition in the perennially difficult ACC. Tennessee junior Brynn Boren is No. 23 in the country in singles, and senior teammate Kata Szekely sits two spots behind at No. 25. Northwestern senior Kate Turvy ranks No. 67 in the country, and Utah features three players in the NCAA’s top 125.
In addition, all three teams advanced to at least the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament. The Wildcats made it the furthest, qualifying for the third round.
Virginia, however, features the highest-ranked player of any team in the Winter Invitational: Elbaba, who ranks No. 4 nationally in singles competition.
“I think she knows that that’s an amazing accomplishment, but I also don’t want to overstate that, for her benefit as well,” Guilbeau said. “… My real attention right now is that everything that we’re doing individually is for one purpose, and that’s not for the individual. It’s for the team.”
The team is in a good place at the moment, but the Cavaliers know there is work to be done.
“As a team, we’re happy with the No. 11 ranking right now but not satisfied at all,” Vierra said. “We think we can be a top-five team, so we’re really excited about the season.”