Women’s Tennis: NU’s veteran closer

Jimmy Mitchell

After No. 1 Northwestern’s 5-2 defeat of No. 4 Georgia Tech Sunday, the story out of Atlanta focused on the usual suspects.

Sophomore Maria Mosolova, the top-ranked singles player in the nation, lost in three sets, extending her brief losing streak to two matches. Senior Georgia Rose, No. 25 in singles, defeated No. 10 Amanda McDowell, the 2008 NCAA singles champion.

In fact, it was fellow senior Nazlie Ghazal, playing in the fifth singles slot for the Wildcats, who ultimately sealed NU’s eighth consecutive win of 2009. Her victory over the Yellow Jackets’ Sasha Krupina, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, provided NU with its fourth and clinching point of the match.

Not always under the bright gaze of the spotlight, Ghazal has nevertheless been a big part of NU’s rise to the top of the national women’s tennis landscape, coach Claire Pollard said.

“I’ve always said that (Ghazal) is one of the unsung heroes of our program that doesn’t get enough credit for where we are today, ” Pollard said. “I can’t be upset if we lose that match. (Krupina) was playing so well, and for (Ghazal) to come in there, make a couple of slight adjustments … it was just great tennis. We need that from everyone on our team. It’s no surprise that we get it from her.”

At No. 5 singles, Ghazal represents a hidden gem in the Cats’ treasure trove of talent. NU’s lineup boasts five of the nation’s top 100 singles players. After Mosolova and Rose, junior Samantha Murray holds a No. 43 ranking at the third spot, and junior Lauren Lui boasts a No. 84 ranking at the four.

Ghazal, No. 99, broke into the top 100 for the first time this season after the Cats’ tournament win at the ITA National Women’s Team Indoor Team Championship earlier this month in Madison, Wis.

The individual rankings reflect the depth of NU’s roster, Ghazal said.

“It’s more about the team than it is about us as individuals,” she said. “It does show how deep we are. I don’t think there are any holes in our lineup. We’re all capable of winning our matches at our spots. It’s a nice feeling.”

RISE TO THE TOP

As a senior in high school, Ghazal chose Northwestern over Duke, Michigan, Princeton and Virginia. Her family boasts a number of athletes, including her father, Medhi, a former star of the Iranian national soccer team, and her older sister, Sanaz, who played tennis at Harvard.

Ghazal, a Temecula, Calif. native, was impressed with what she saw in NU’s tennis program. Apart from the weather, the biggest adjustment came in the level of intensity collegiate tennis requires, she said.

“I didn’t know too much about the school before I got here, but talking to Claire and just hanging out with the team and seeing how they interacted, I just knew that the school was a good fit,” Ghazal said. “I thought the team worked really hard. The seniors did a good job getting us pushed right into the team.”

During Ghazal’s freshman year, the 2005-06 Cats were an impressive team, if not the juggernaut they would eventually become. The squad consisted of three seniors and two freshmen, Ghazal and Rose. NU won its eight consecutive Big Ten championship but eventually fell to USC in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.

The arrival of Ghazal and Rose played a key role in NU’s success. Ghazal finished her freshman campaign with an overall record of 35-8 and the second highest win total of any Big Ten freshman. Rose, with a 38-8 record, had the first.

A new era of women’s tennis at NU was born, spearheaded by Ghazal and Rose. After falling short at the NCAA tournament again in 2007, the Cats received a shot in the arm in the import of Mosolova, an international standout from Russia.

The 2007-08 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Mosolova propelled NU to the top. For the first time in program history, the Cats were the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, a position they held from Feb. 26 to the NCAA championship in May, where once again NU could not make it out of the quarterfinal round.

No. 1 once again, the Cats have not lost in 2009. All of the time together as a team has been the catalyst of NU’s success, Ghazal said.

“A lot of us have grown together,” she said. “We’ve all got to know each other and how to get along and how to solve problems. We’ve overcome a lot of things that new teams have to go through. I think it helps our confidence a lot when we go into matches and we know what to expect from each other and aren’t going to accept anything less.”

With three months until the crowning of the NCAA champion, Ghazal characterizes a potential national title as “all our work paying off.”

The early exit at last year’s tournament left a bad feeling for seniors such as Ghazal and Rose – a feeling, Pollard said, that has motivated them to greatness in 2009.

“Getting a taste last year and losing at the NCAAs a little bit earlier than we would have liked to, those seniors don’t want to have that taste again,” she said. “They’re showing that every time they step out on the court right now.”

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