Women’s Tennis: Wildcats open Big Ten play with victory over Fighting Illini

Junior Veronica Corning competes during a home match. The Wildcats defeated in-state rival Illinois over the weekend.

Daily file photo by Meghan White

Junior Veronica Corning competes during a home match. The Wildcats defeated in-state rival Illinois over the weekend.

Alex Putterman, Reporter

Beating a top-35 team in Big Ten play apparently isn’t enough to please Northwestern’s coach.

In the opening conference dual meet of the season, the No. 8 Wildcats (7-4, 1-0) dispatched No. 33 Illinois (6-5, 0-1) 5-2 at Evanston’s Combe Tennis Center, showing warts along the way against a team coach Claire Pollard said the Cats should have beaten more easily.

The doubles point was hotly contested, with two of the three doubles matches requiring tiebreakers. NU’s Kate Turvy and Belinda Niu won at the No. 3 slot 8-3, but the Cats’ other two pairs needed to work harder.

Nida Hamilton and Linda Abu Mushrefova, the Cats’ top doubles pair and the nation’s eighth-ranked tandem, took a 4-1 lead on the Illini’s No. 23 Rachael White and Melissa Kopinski but minutes later faced a 7-6 deficit. Two holds from Hamilton and Mushrefova mandated a tiebreaker, which NU’s duo won 7-2 to clinch the doubles point.

“It’s tough at one,” Pollard said of the top doubles spot. “You never get a day off. You never get an even lesser opponent. It’s just brutal out there. It’s kind of showing right now just how tough it is at the top.”

The Cats also blew a lead in the final doubles match, which was abandoned with the Cats leading the tiebreaker 4-1.

I thought we did a poor job in doubles when we had some big leads and then we let them back in the match,” Pollard said. “I wasn’t very happy.”

After the doubles struggles, NU cruised through singles. Niu remained hot, winning her match 6-1, 6-1 to improve to a team-best 8-3 in dual meets in 2013.

“Honestly, a little bit of it is luck,” Niu said of her success. “I’ve just had some fortunate match-ups and luck in that sense. I don’t think there’s anything I’m doing that my teammates aren’t.”

Hamilton, playing singles in place of the injured Brittany Wowchuk, closed her match 6-1, 6-4, and freshman Alicia Barnett won 6-4, 6-4 to clinch the meet for the Cats. Playing higher than usual at the four spot, Barnett said she was happy with the result of her match, even if she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her play.

“I could do better,” she said. “But a win’s a win, and at the end of the day that’s all we really wanted. My serving wasn’t on top form, and I made a lot of errors, which I wasn’t happy with, but I knew that was something to work on.”

With the outcome determined, Mushrefova won 6-4, 7-5 to extend NU’s lead to 5-0, but Turvy and Veronica Corning lost close matches to prevent a Cats sweep. Despite the victory, Pollard walked away from the meet largely unhappy with her team’s effort.

“We’re a program that’s founded on getting the most out of ourselves every day,” she said. “People think our successes come from waving a magic wand, but it hasn’t. It comes from a lot of hard work and a huge commitment and a dedication to being at your best all the time. That’s just something we’ve got to get better at it. We’re inconsistent at that as a team right now. The girls recognize it, I recognize it, and it’s my job to fix that.”