Playful Ranieri can turn predator

Despite the Crimson “H” on her uniform, it was hard not to pity June Tiong when she stepped onto Court One last week at the Brady Squash Center. A skinny freshman from Malaysia, she wore a long ponytail and a drab, team-issued polo that hung baggily over her slight frame. Once the glass door closed, she was a guppy in a shark tank.

Enter Miranda Ranieri ’08, Yale’s captain, No. 1 seed and perhaps the best women’s squash player in the country. A spandex, “racerback” top revealed her deltoids and the “Y” tattoo on her right shoulder blade. Her hair wound tightly in a bun, it seemed to hold the kinetic energy that was poised to course through her body for the next 45 minutes. A crowd of male fans awaiting the match of men’s No. 1 Max Samuel ’08 became quickly enthralled.

One week later, Ranieri cannot remember Tiong’s name, nor that the freshman managed to steal the second game of her four-game victory, Ranieri’s 11th in 12 matches this season. In person, the Ontario native is an odd blend of glowering, cocksure competitor and “Aw shucks” goofball. But on the court, she is a relentless predator, wearing down opponents with an attacking style full of volleys that help her dictate each point.

“[Tiong]’s a freshman, so it’s her first year playing,” Ranieri said of the Harvard match. “On court, I just feel comfortable from playing my whole life. I don’t think I’m intimidating, but maybe I am to a freshman I guess.”

It is difficult to tell whether she forgot Tiong’s name because she is scatterbrained or because the freshman is one of an increasing number of would-be contenders she has vanquished this year. The hiccup in game two was the only game Ranieri has dropped in her 11 victories.

“She has a tendency of going to other players’ games rather than sticking to her own game,” associate head coach Gareth Webber said. “But when she’s on that attack mode, taking that ball early on the volley, she puts a lot of pressure on them and it just breaks players down. Miranda just keeps going and going and slowly breaks down her opponent because she’s just constantly attacking.”

That tenacity was absent on only one occasion this season, a Dec. 6 match against Williams’ Toby Eyre that teammate Elisabeth Hill ’08 called “hard to watch.” Reeling from a week of illness and no practice time, with finals looming, Ranieri dropped a 3-1 decision to a player not considered among the nation’s elite.

Still, when discussing the match, Ranieri is begrudgingly gracious.

“I do have a few excuses, but I don’t want to take away the fact that she played very well,” she said. “She’s a good player. She did play well.”

Ranieri may get a shot at redemption against Eyre in two weeks at the College Squash Association singles championship, but in the meantime she has her sights set on the Howe Cup — the national championship for teams — to be played Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Princeton.

Yale’s nine find themselves in an unusual position this year, with Penn and Princeton considered the favorites. The Quakers and Tigers have been the only teams to beat the Bulldogs this season, although Ranieri won her match against both opponents.

“We’re the underdogs, which is kind of nice actually because it takes away a lot of the pressure,” she said. “Penn on paper is a bit better, but then the rest of us have had close matches. Plus, we’re used to the courts now. The last time we went we were a little flustered by the courts being so quick, but I think now we can prepare for that.”

In the Feb. 2 loss to Princeton on those fast courts at Jadwin Gym, a number of Yale’s players struggled to adjust the speed of their swings when hitting their lengths, a precise shot intended to hug the wall and die in the back corner. Ranieri managed to stay composed in part because of her quickness.

“She has a drive through the whole point,” Hill said. “She never stops moving, never stops going after any ball. You see it watching her — it’s so exciting seeing how many balls she can get to, keeping points going that you think might be over.”

Regardless of Yale’s performance this weekend, Ranieri will be one of the favorites at Individuals in Annapolis — especially if you ask her teammates.

“I think she’s the best in the country,” Hill said. “I think she’s definitely going to win Individuals.”

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