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Women's doubles round into form

Guilbeau finds reliable doubles pairings following Epstein injury

The No. 18 Virginia women’s tennis team (13-7, 6-1 ACC) has been virtually unstoppable in recent weeks, going 10-1 since losing to third-ranked Texas A&M. Success has not come easy for the Cavaliers, though, as injuries have threatened to derail their stellar performance. The most notable loss for Virginia came in standout freshman Maci Epstein’s ankle injury, which forced Virginia coach Mark Guilbeau to shuffle his lineup around.

“It was a big loss,” Guilbeau said. “I feel so bad because [Epstein] and [senior] Erin [Vierra] had put themselves in a great position individually.”

At the time of her injury, Epstein was one half of the fifth-ranked doubles tandem in the nation. Epstein and her partner, Vierra, were an anchor for the Cavaliers and always gave the team a definite chance to snag the critical doubles point. When Epstein went down however, the elusive doubles victories became much harder to come by and Virginia was forced to rethink its pairings.

The Virginia coaching staff decided to lean on another talented freshman to fill Epstein’s void. Stephanie Nauta has been paired with Vierra since the first match of the Blue/Gray Tennis Classic, which the Cavaliers won March 17. But prior to this definitive move, Virginia played three matches full of uncertainty and went 1-2 during the stretch.

The team’s play has improved significantly since this stumbling block, but the doubles teams have only recently fully settled into their new pairings. Prior to Epstein’s injury, Nauta teamed up with junior Li Xi to comprise the No. 17 duo in the country, while star freshman Julia Elbaba and senior Hana Tomljanovic made up the other pair. Epstein’s departure ultimately shook up not just her doubles team, but the other two as well.

“I feel good about the pairs we have now,” Guilbeau said. “It all looks real good and exciting moving ahead.”

Guilbeau first tried out several different combinations in an attempt to find chemistry between his athletes. It took several weeks, but it seems he has finally come across a successful formula for his doubles players. Guilbeau made the decision to pair Xi with veteran senior Maria Fuccillo at the No. 3 doubles court. The two have extensive experience and have proven to be reliable leaders that can carry their younger teammates through the recent tumult.

At the No. 2 position, Guilbeau chose to stick with a team that knew each other well in Elbaba and Tomljanovic. The two have competed together for virtually the entire season — aside from the experimental period immediately following Epstein’s injury — and have found a great deal of success. In the team’s recent five-match winning streak, this high-powered tandem has gone 3-0 after not competing together in the matches against non-conference opponents North Carolina Central and East Tennessee State.

“Everyone has been stepping up, especially the second and third teams,” Vierra said. “They have been like rocks for [me and Nauta] to lean on.”

Virginia’s top doubles team, given the age difference and lack of playing experience with one another, has experienced the most difficult adjustment period. Vierra and Nauta had not played together prior to mid-March, so acclimating to each other’s respective styles might account for their initial struggles. Nauta, however, has proven more than capable of adapting to the situation, earning an ACC Player of the Week honor for her work in the Blue/Gray Classic.

Vierra, despite arguably facing the most change throughout the process, appears unfazed by the situation. She has utilized her experience as a senior to help Nauta keep her composure during slumps and has performed tremendously in singles play lately — clinching Virginia’s monumental 4-3 upset victory against No. 1 North Carolina March 30.

This series of adaptations could have easily broken the spirit of the women’s team, but in fact seems to have had the opposite effect. Despite losing an integral member of the team, Virginia has turned its season around to climb back into the top 20 nationally.

As Virginia finishes up the regular season and heads into the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, the team will rely on strong doubles play to jump out to early advantages. With the upheaval that the Cavaliers’ doubles pairings have overcome, the odds of the points continuing to pile up in their favor look to be improving.

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