Women's Tennis 2010 Season Preview
Jan. 12, 2010
Fifth-year head coach Jill Hultquist has a new issue to deal with this season, but a problem any coach would be glad to endure. For the first time in her tenure, Hultquist and the Husky women's tennis team are facing lofty preseason expectations and will strive to duplicate or surpass an excellent 2009 season.
The team no longer bears any resemblance to the one Hultquist took over in 2006. After winning just eight matches combined over her first two seasons, Hultquist and assistant coach Damon Coupe have taken the Huskies back to the NCAA Championships in 2008 and 2009, and last year Washington broke through to the NCAA Round of 16 for the first time since 2004, upsetting the Pac-10 Champion USC Trojans in Los Angeles in the second round.
Not only that, but the Huskies return an identical roster with no additions or subtractions since last spring, and since every player is out to improve on the year before, that would mean at least a return trip to the Sweet-16 and a Top-25 ranking are inevitable goals.
'There are a lot of expectations on us since we finished off really strong last year in the Sweet 16, but the girls are looking forward to trying to repeat that or better it,' Hultquist says.
If the fall is any indication, the Huskies can count on further improvements in their top two returning singles players. Junior Venise Chan's 2008-09 season was one of the best in UW history, and she became just the third Husky to make the All-Pac-10 First Team. Still the Hong Kong native easily had her best fall yet and has upped her singles ranking to No. 11 heading into dual matches, a new career-high.
Chan started the year off by advancing to the semifinals of the ITA All-American Championships, defeating three Top-25 opponents en route. In the semis, she lost a heartbreaking 7-5, 7-6 match to the eventual champion and current No. 1-ranked player Irina Falconi of Georgia Tech. It was the best showing ever by a Husky. Chan then made a run to the quarterfinals of the ITA National Indoor Championships in November, falling to Falconi once again at Yale University.
Yet even with Chan's phenomenal fall, sophomore Denise Dy was at least an equal, and the proof came in the first week of January when Dy's singles ranking flew fifty-five spots up from No. 58 to No. 3 in the nation. That was a result of a dominant month of play this fall, where Dy captured the first ever Northwest Region Singles Championship in Washington history as the No. 9 seed, defeating 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year Hilary Barte of Stanford in the semifinals, and Cal's Jana Juricova, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation, in the final.
From there Dy joined Chan at the ITA National Indoors and made it one round farther, reaching the semifinals where she matched up again with Juricova. This time the Cal player came out on top and went on to win the title the next day. But Dy earned another hard-fought win over Barte at National Indoors as well as a comeback three-set win over Fresno State's Anastasia Petukhova, who enters dual play ranked fourth nationally.
'Venise has always been a consistent player for us, but I think her fall was her best of the three years she's been here. It's funny because she had a great semifinal match at the All-Americans, and then reached the quarterfinals of the Indoors, but got a little overshadowed by Denise who won the Regionals which was awesome for Washington tennis and reaching the Indoor semis. But what an amazing fall for them and us as a team. Denise's No. 3 ranking is great, she had a few bigger wins that propelled her to number three whereas Venise had some good solid wins but a couple losses in there, but she's No. 11 so why am I complaining?' Hultquist laughed. 'But of course they both want to be higher, that's their goal is to be higher.'
The fall tournament results for the rest of the squad were mixed overall, but Hultquist says any concerns have been quickly alleviated by recent practices.
'I was a little nervous about some of the other fall results. We had a good fall but not what I thought it was going to be. But after the holidays, coming back for our first week of practice, the girls are looking really strong. Damon and I have both looked at each other saying wow, this is good.'
Chan has started every match the past two years at No. 1 singles for the Huskies and twice reached the NCAA Singles Championships. Last season she was a phenomenal 21-4 at the No. 1 spot despite facing the cream of the crop in the Pac-10. Yet all of a sudden her No. 11 ranking for the moment is second on the team. Dy will likely get some chances at the top spot, says Hultquist, but Chan still gets the nod at No. 1 to start the year.
'I think there's definitely an opportunity to do some switching around because they've both earned it. I think you have to look at Venise as our No. 1 player because she's been No. 1 for the last two years and going into her third year she's earned that right. Denise has earned the right also to play No. 1, so we will do some juggling there, and I love that we can juggle those two around. It's great for UW tennis to have that depth now,' said Hultquist.
With her two deep runs in the fall majors, Chan proved she can be a force in an elite individual tournament. The one thing still missing from her résumé however is an All-America honor, something only four Huskies have achieved. She also will be hoping for a strong run in the NCAA Championships this year, after getting upended in the first round in her first two chances.
'It seems like her biggest mental block is that first round at NCAAs,' says Hultquist. 'She has a great year last year with great wins and went to NCAAs with high expectations and then it was a little bit of a downer to end the season. So I'm hoping for her that her goals include All-American and some NCAA wins.'
When Dy joined the roster last year, Hultquist promised that she would bring the fun back to Husky tennis, and Dy delivered with tremendous athleticism and shot-making ability from all over the court. She earned All-Pac-10 honorable mention, but missed out on NCAAs. She was tempted sometimes to go for a little too much, and Hultquist sees that as the most improved aspect of her game.
I thought last year she had the ability to make NCAAs yet she didn't, and we discussed how it's a little disappointing how she's so talented and yet she didn't make NCAAs, and I think she's on the right track now,' Hultquist says. 'Her shot selections are more consistent and she's being smarter on the court. She's flashy, she loves her flash, but she's a lot calmer when she plays. She's just matured and is going for the right shot at the right time.'
After having no seniors in 2009, Washington has three this season with Joyce Ardies, Aleksandra Malovic, and Lauren Summers embarking on their final seasons. Ardies and Malovic both enjoyed career-highs in wins last year, mostly at the fifth and sixth singles spots, respectively. With 27 singles wins, Ardies' 2009 season ranked ninth in school history, and she teamed up with Dy to form one of the top doubles tandems in the nation. Hultquist has been happy with the continued effort of her senior class.
'For every coach, having seniors on the team, you wonder how they're going to do their final year, and so far I've just seen nothing but drive out of both Malovic and Ardies. There's been no hint of relaxing because they're almost at the end, it's `okay, what can I do to get better?' So we love that.'
Ardies and Dy will serve as the team's captains in addition to leading the doubles charge. The two qualified for the All-American main draw and advanced to the quarterfinals this fall, then reached the semis at the Northwest Regionals. Their ranking climbed to 11th this month, career-highs for both. In singles, Ardies has made her reputation as a fighter that will do whatever the Huskies need.
'We've worked a lot on her Joyce's game and I think she'll still be even a better player than last year,' Hultquist says. 'She's got a great work ethic. Where Denise brings the fun into tennis, Joyce brings the spirit of competition. She just thrives on it. She says, `get me out there I'll play wherever you want me to and I'll put a point on the board.''
Malovic was 17-7 in dual matches last year, and has played in just about every spot in the singles lineup over her career. She earned several key singles wins including a victory in UW's upset of USC and the clinching win in a 4-3 victory over Arizona. Her powerful baseline game is one of the best on the team.
'Aleks struggled a bit in the fall but she came back after the holidays and her game looks really good, I'm really impressed with her game and that she wants to continue to improve,' said Hultquist.
The third singles spot will be a key for the Huskies, and is always a difficult position in the Pac-10. Last year, sophomore transfer Lina Xu played the three spot. This year's lineup is still open to tweaking. Hultquist says they could shake things up from the third through sixth spots, or keep it exactly the same, but wherever Xu falls her progress will be very important to the team.
'Lina's working on her game; it's tough because she does a lot in her day. She's a strong player, if she can just get her whole daily life organized she'll be a better player, but she's got so much going in it's really hard for her to just focus on the tennis,' Hultquist says. 'She's got a tough major, so combining tennis and academics has been a struggle for her, and if she can learn how to better combine them she'll have a much better season. Lina hits a really clean ball off her forehand. When she's focusing only on tennis she's great and she'll put some wins on the board.'
Sophomore Samantha Smith is the sixth returning starter and started every match last year at third and fourth singles, going 13-6 at the No. 4 spot. Smith ended the 2009 season playing her best tennis, including a straight-set upset win over a ranked Trojan player in the NCAA dual match. Her fall results this season weren't what they were one year earlier, but the coaches have seen an impressive response from the sophomore.
'Samantha struggled in the fall and she worked really hard during the holidays on her fitness and she has come back looking really sharp,' said Hultquist. Samantha knows how to use the court and she's very deceiving, because she's not flashy but she's very smart. She puts a lot of depth on her balls and knows how to close. She's a good all-around player and gets the job done. Her speed has improved. She's tall and has really worked on her footwork and has come back a lot faster.'
'Krsljanin looks fitter and calmer. She stepped in for us last year when we had some injuries and did a great job and she knows we will need her again. If she does see some playing time she'll be a more consistent player. Vanja's worked hard and she might see time as well. It's always been more of a mental struggle for her, she's always had the game. She's worked really hard on getting more confident.'
Anderson and Summers, both local products from Mukilteo and Edmonds, respectively, have put in the work as walk-ons and each picked up some wins during the fall. If called upon both will be ready and capable of earning a point.
'It's hard being a walk-on. Our schedule is pretty tough,' says Hultquist. 'We don't have a lot of easy matches where you might be able to change up your lineup, so we hope they'll see some playing time and we'll do our best to get them in. They've both worked as hard as anyone else and they'll be ready.'
Turning to the doubles lineup, the same six starters should be relied upon for doubles. Ardies and Dy have hardly lost since teaming up late last season. They went 12-1 at No. 1 doubles down the stretch and only needed a few more matches to likely earn an NCAA bid. The rest of the lineup has just gone through a small makeover, with Chan now expected to team with Smith to start the dual season and Xu going with Malovic.
'We had Malovic and Xu together last year but it wasn't as good. Now that they know each other and they're friends it seems to work a lot better. The communication is better than it was a year ago. And the same goes for Venise and Samantha; it's a better team chemistry.'
Washington opens with a road trip to Michigan where they will face the Wolverines, and top players from Tennessee and Miami in a tournament format. The first dual matches will be back at home against BYU and Utah (Jan. 23 and 24), two teams that the Huskies beat on the road last year to get the season started with a bang.
An early season test will come with the ITA National Team Indoor Championship qualifying section, which takes UW to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where they will face two out of three teams ranked in the Top-20 to start the year. First the Huskies will have to contend with 19th-ranked Arkansas on their home courts, and then will play either 20th-ranked Michigan or have an NCAA rematch with 17th-ranked South Carolina who ended UW's season last year. Two wins would send UW to the National Team Indoor finals in February in Wisconsin.
'We got a really good region for Indoors,' said Hultquist. 'I think last year we were a little disappointed with finishing No. 27; I think after beating USC we thought we'd be higher. But some of the teams we scheduled didn't hold their rankings, so we lost points that way. But Arkansas, Michigan, South Carolina, they're all ranked right where I want them to be and if we manage to win that's going to give us some good rankings points. There's no bad match-up there, it's going to be a great weekend for all the teams involved.'
Home matches against Sacramento State and Minnesota follow before a non-conference road swing through California to face UC Irvine and Long Beach State. That takes UW up to Pac-10 play, which for the first time in several years finds the Huskies playing all eight conference matches in a row to end the year. Washington gets the Arizona schools, and Bay Area schools at home, while traveling to Los Angeles, Oregon, and Pullman. As usual, the Pac-10 will feature several national title contending teams, as all four California schools are ranked in the Top-15.
Washington wants to put itself in the upper echelon of the Pac-10 conference, as it was from 2001-2005. The win over USC in last year's tourney was a huge first step, but nobody will overlook the Huskies this season.
In the just completed decade, Washington women's tennis experienced its greatest highs, but also its lowest valley. Yet the team was able to right the ship in recent years and now heads into a new decade back on course with clear skies ahead.