Rutgers dominates doubles, splits matches against in-state rivals
Fresh off its first win of the season — a 4-3 home victory over Binghamton Feb. 5 — the Rutgers tennis team entered the weekend with a chance to continue its winning ways against two in-state foes on the road.
Both matches ended in the same score, but the Scarlet Knights were only able to finish on the long side of the scoreboard in one match.
The Knights (2-2) fell short to Princeton (5-4) 5-2 on Saturday, before flipping that score around and taking down Seton Hall (3-2) 5-2 on Sunday.
Rutgers seized the doubles point for the third-straight time in three tries this season before ultimately falling short in its showdown against Princeton.
Seniors Gina Li and Mariam Zein outlasted Princeton's tandem of Nicole Kalhorn and Amanda Muliawan, 7-6 (1), to continue its dominance in doubles.
“Winning doubles against them was huge,” Li said. “I don’t think we’ve ever done that against Princeton, or for at least as long as I’ve been here.”
The Knights' combination of sophomore Chloe Lee and junior Ksenija Tihomirova cruised past Emily Hahn and Katrine Steffensen of the Tigers, 6-0, in No. 2 doubles.
Succeeding in doubles has been a concentrated effort from both the players and the coaching staff this season.
“Winning all of our doubles points this year has been a huge confidence booster thus far,” said head coach Benjamin Bucca. “Those results, especially against two nationally ranked opponents, have given us some self assurance as we prepare for conference play.”
It didn’t go quite as swimmingly in singles play for Rutgers.
Although Tihomirova collected her second singles victory of the season with a 6-4, 3-6 (10-8) set win in the No. 3 position, the Tigers made certain the Riga, Latvia, native's win would be the lone bright spot for the Knights, with five straight-set wins to close out the match.
“We played our hearts out and put everything we could into it,” Bucca said. “Unfortunately, they just came out as the better team.”
After such a tolling match versus an impressive Ivy League squad, Rutgers had to swiftly shift its focus and continue its busy weekend.
The following day, the Knights traveled to New Providence, New Jersey, and turned their 3-point deficit against Princeton into 3-point win over Seton Hall.
“It’s an extremely difficult challenge for an athlete to compete at a world class level two days in a row,” Li said. “I think we came out a little flat, not playing our best, but we bounced back reasonably to pull out the win.”
Due to fatigue — or possibly the cold weather and frigid conditions within the indoor facility — Rutgers struggled early on in the match.
As the doubles matches wore on, its play showed more signs of energy in accordance with the amount of teammates cheering from the sidelines.
“I try to instill within the ladies the importance of inspiration,” Bucca said. “Tennis is traditionally a quiet sport, but we emphasize positive encouragement.”
The loud and supportive Knights used this to their advantage and once again captured the doubles point as well as garnering four singles victories during the match.
Lee and Tihomirova showcased their strong chemistry yet again in doubles play with a 6-3 victory over the Pirates' duo of Julia Keenan and Katie Kim in the No. 2 position.
The win marked the tandem's second win in as many matches.
In the No. 3 position, senior Lindsey Kayati and junior Farris Cunningham got in the win column for Rutgers with a 7-5 win over Isabell Klingert and Thandy Kangwa.
The Knights scooped up wins in four of the six singles matches against Seton Hall.
Leading off for Rutgers, Gina Li swept Luize Strike in a 6-3, 6-0 decision.
Following two consecutive singles victories from the Pirates, Zein got Rutgers back on track with a 6-0, 7-6 (1) win over Katie Kim. In the subsequent match, Kayati took down Isabell Klingert in three sets, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 10-1, to give the Knights the deciding advantage.
“All three of our seniors (Li, Kayati and Zain) won their singles matches concurrently for the first time this year,” Bucca said. “They’re steadily developing into the leaders on this team.”
The Knights demonstrated their perseverance and resiliency playing clean tennis and keeping their opponents on the move throughout their matches.
After a tough and emotionally drenching weekend, Rutgers has a week of practice ahead of them before they hit the road again.
The Knights will bus up north to West Point, New York, to compete in the third and final leg of its road trip against Army.
Despite this daunting stretch of schedule, Bucca is more optimistic than ever.
“This team is special,” Bucca said. “They’re a cohesive, hard-working unit and not afraid to support each other which can aid us tremendously in the future.”
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