Women’s Tennis: Wildcats test themselves early to prepare for No. 14

Chris Johnson

When coach Claire Pollard scheduled nine top-20 teams in the Wildcats’ 2012 nonconference schedule, she hoped to prepare Northwestern for another conference title, a feat that would extend NU’s conference championship streak to 14.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s the attitude that we’ve taken with our nonconference scheduling,” she said. “You need to play the best in order to beat the best. We need to face the best competition in the nonconference so that we’re ready for whatever we see in the Big Ten.”

This year’s nonconference slate included road matchups with then-No. 8 North Carolina and third-ranked Duke, as well as a trip to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Indoor Team Championship, where NU faced then-No. 9 Virginia, fourth-ranked UCLA and then-No. 17 Tennessee.

The Cats were up to the challenge, beating the Cavaliers and the Tar Heels while losing close matches to the Blue Devils and the Lady Vols. Due to their nonconference success, the Cats climbed to No. 9 in the Feb. 22 edition of the ITA rankings, marking the first time they have entered the top 10 since March 2, 2011.

Although the Cats have garnered national attention, they still need to improve, junior Linda Abu Mushrefova said.

“It’s really good that we got to play so many tough teams early on because now we know that we’ve gone against the best,” she said. “When you play against that kind of talent, it exposes your weaknesses. So now we definitely know that we have to work on some things before we get into conference play.”

Abu Mushrefova and sophomore Nida Hamilton served as NU’s dominant No. 1 doubles pairing for much of the nonconference season and were ranked sixth nationally as late as Feb. 16 . But struggles in the No. 2 and No. 3 doubles slots forced Pollard to split up Hamilton and Abu Mushrefova for several matches and try to win with new pairings. Pollard said improvement in doubles will be crucial for future success.

“We can live with the fact that the doubles point may not be our best point this year, but we at least need to give ourselves a chance,” she said. “I’ve been asking the girls not to give up in doubles. They need to persevere and stay resilient, and I think we’ll be ok.”

The reasons NU has been able to win matches despite its shortcomings in doubles play is its success in singles matches. The Cats are led by junior Kate Turvy, who moved up to 11th in the Feb. 16 edition of the ITA rankings. Hamilton has also enjoyed success in singles. The sophomore has posted a 10-4 record on the year so far.

“There’s a lot of things that we can do better specific to our own games,” Hamilton said. “We need to get more balls in play and not give away free points in singles. Our opponents need to work for everything.”

Though NU has had more success in singles than doubles play, Pollard said she feels confident about her team’s overall depth.

“We’re so solid everywhere; I don’t think we have a hole in the lineup,” she said. “Sometimes our successes come from the top and sometimes they come from the bottom. And that’s the key to having a great team.”

The Cats will begin their run at a 14th consecutive Big Ten title when they visit Illinois on March 10. While 11th-ranked Michigan is thought to be NU’s biggest obstacle in its path to another conference championship, Pollard said she believes the Fighting Illini also will be a legitimate contender.

“Illinois is going to be really tough,” she said. “They’re under the radar, but I think we’ll be ready for them. We haven’t taken any losses in conference because we underestimate someone. We respect everyone and give our best no matter who we face.”

If they maintain that attitude throughout their Big Ten schedule, the Cats could be on their way to extending their conference championship streak to 14.

“We’re looking forward to getting another one,” Abu Mushrefova said.

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