Although the season began just last week, the women’s tennis team has already started to climb the NCAA Division I rankings.
The No. 25 Bulldogs proved that they have what it takes to become a top 20 team by the end of their season at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Kick-off in Ann Arbor, Mich. last weekend. The team upset the No. 21 University of Notre Dame with a 4–3 win and came close to the No. 10 University of Michigan in a 4–3 loss. The weekend’s matches boosted Yale’s ranking by 10 places.
“We knew at the very start that we had a talented group,” head coach Danielle McNamara said. “By building on past years and establishing our program, I think that this year could be a breakout year for us.”
The kickoff weekend for the ITA allows teams to compete for a spot at the ITA national indoors tournament, one of the most prestigious college team events outside of the NCAA Tournament that takes place each year in February. In order to participate in the kickoff, a team needs to be ranked within the top 64 in the country. The team broke into the top 75 in the nation five years ago and has been moving up since, finishing at No. 31 at the end of last year.
This year, Yale chose to compete at Michigan to gain experience against two highly ranked teams, McNamara said.
“We choose to play at Michigan because I could see that we would have played Notre Dame, which is exactly what happend last year,” head coach Danielle McNamara said. “We got smoked, and I really wanted to play them again as a measuring stick to see how we have progressed. I played [at Michigan] too so it was nice to go back and possibly play Michigan.”
Competing against the top tennis schools in the nation is not an easy task. In the Ivy League, only three schools — Brown, Dartmouth and Yale — received a berth at the Kick-off Weekend in women’s tennis this season.
The Notre Dame match was a huge step for the women’s tennis team. Both the three players interviewed and McNamara attributed their success to the preparation that had been going on prior to the match, which included working with a mental coach and simulating high pressure situations during practice, though none would comment on the specifics of the training.
“Our biggest problem leading up to this year was that we were too intimidated going up against the bigger names,” McNamara said. “We put our players in high-pressure situations so that they would have the confidence when they were in these types of situations and be successful.”
Notre Dame became an actual high-pressure situation very quickly. The match score traded off evenly, with Yale eventually pulling ahead 3–1 by the end of the fourth match. No. 2 spot doubles competitors Annie Sullivan ’14 and Elizabeth Epstein ’13, a pair unranked nationally, played one of Yale’s toughest matches against the Fighting Irish’s Brittany Sanders and Katherine White, a duo ranked No. 25 in the country. The Notre Dame pair got to match point in three games, but Sullivan and Epstein managed to hold them off each time. The pair came back to win the last three games and clinched a 9–7 victory.
“It was a pretty up-and-down match. It was an adrenaline rush,” Epstein said. “Danielle talks about enjoying the moment, and we tried to enjoy the moment for what it was worth.”
The next day the women’s tennis team took on Michigan in yet another tight competition. The Yale doubles teams led the way by starting the match off 2–1. Sullivan and Epstein won 8–6 at No. 2 and Blair Seideman ’14 and team captain Steph Kent ’12 won 9–8 at No. 3. (Seideman is a staff photographer for the News.)
Hanna Yu ’15 began the singles matches with a victory at the No. 5 spot, her second consecutive win of the tournament, but Yale ended up losing the singles round at the top four spots. Epstein came close to upsetting No. 36 ranked Emina Bektas at No. 1 but ended up falling short in both sets 7–5.
The three players interviewed said the team would not have come so close to taking down Michigan without the intense team dynamic and closeness both on and off the court.
“When we’re playing matches and my teammates are playing alongside me, I get more pumped and work harder.” Yu said. “The reason that we’ve had such a good start to the season is that we are motivated by each other to do the best possible for the team,”
As for achieving their goals, the Elis’ level of play during the kickoff tournament demonstrated that they are right on track. The end goal for this year, McNamara said, is to break the top 20, to win the Ivy League Championships in April and to reach along with the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Yale’s closest competitor for the Ivy title is currently Brown, but the Bears trail the Bulldogs by 18 spots in the national rankings.
The tennis team will continue its season this weekend in Arkansas against No. 31 Oklahoma and No. 32 Arkansas at the George M. Billingsley Tennis Center.