Rutgers continues without Big Ten win despite impressive showing in singles
The Rutgers tennis team has been on a defiant quest this spring to earn its first Big Ten victory.
Against Illinois, it came as close as it has to accomplishing that goal.
The Scarlet Knights lost a tight 4-3 match Friday afternoon and are now 6-9 overall and 0-5 in conference play.
Their match versus the Fighting Illini (7-6, 1-1) began outdoors at the Rutgers Tennis Complex, but was quickly moved to the East Brunswick Racquet Club due to rain.
Only a few games of doubles had been played when the players and coaches were rushed indoors and the rapid transition seemed to affect Rutgers more than the visitors.
Once in East Brunswick, Illinois secured the doubles point handily, winning 6-2 in both the first and second matches.
“We had a slow start and lost the point,” said senior Gina Li. “But that forced us to really focus on singles and I think we stunned them by how well we played.”
Li demonstrated her desire and determination in particular when she was faced with an early one-set deficit.
Playing against fellow Big Ten ace Louise Kwong, Li lost the first frame, 2-6, but rallied back with a 6-1 win in the second stanza.
In the tie-breaking third, she clinched the result by a score of 6-4, extending her singles winning streak to four overall and two consecutive in conference.
Sophomore Chloe Lee and senior Mariam Zein also picked up singles victories for the Knights, each grabbing their first individual conference triumphs.
In the number two spot in the lineup, Lee impressively defeated her rival in straight sets with scores of 7-6 (5) and 7-6 (3).
Zein achieved her victory in the number four spot and was challenged with a three-set battle.
After being decisively beaten in doubles with partner Li, Zein similarly showed off her grit when she captured the first set of her singles match, 6-4.
She then was met with some adversity, falling in the second, 2-6, only to recover and dominate the third set, 6-2.
“I don’t think I played my best technical tennis,” Zein said. “To be honest, I think I just wanted it more and earned the win by competing super hard every point.”
After such incredible performances, Rutgers would go on to ultimately lose in heartbreaking fashion after fighting so hard to tie up the match.
The final contest of the day had junior Ksenija Tihomirova in the number three position ready to seal the deal for the Knights and bring home that elusive first Big Ten victory.
The beginning looked promising as Tihomirova pulled out an opening 6-4 win, but the task proved too tall and the Latvian lost the remaining two sets, 6-7 (3), and 3-6.
“We were so close as it only came down to a couple of points,” Zein said. “We were disappointed because we wanted to break through into the conference win column, but I was happy and proud with how we played.”
Regardless of the result, Rutgers provided clear evidence it is not going to be pushed around by conference foes and will certainly acquire that first win sooner rather than later.
The Knights showed its resilience, energy and unity, as well as plenty of strategically disciplined and sound tennis.
That togetherness head coach Benjamin Bucca always stresses was particularly present during the singles action.
Li, Lee and Zein were playing on adjacent courts and they repeated positive and loud encouragement towards one another throughout.
Despite tough matches all around for Rutgers, the team succeeded by feeding off each others’ energy and that bond the players share could propel them to victory in the near future.
“This match gave us a lot of confidence,” Li said. “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to knock someone off very soon.”
For updates on the Rutgers tennis team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.