The Yale women’s tennis team has suffered its fair share of losses this season — the most important of which have occurred on the roster. But between the alleys, the Bulldogs are doing just fine.
After three players left the team due to personal reasons earlier this season, the Elis (7–9, 0–0 Ivy) have overcome a slim roster to ignite a hot streak that will carry them into the Ivy League season. It has been another up-and-down year for the program: Yale dropped its first seven matches of its indoor season, a fresh reminder of the team’s struggles in the 2015–16 campaign, but the Bulldogs once again outlasted the whirlwind.
Growing from their experiences against top competition early in the season, they have now won seven of their last nine matches. With augmented contributions from the entire roster and rising confidence, this tight-knit unit feels it is finally ready for conference play.
“The last month or so has been really great for us — not just for the wins, which are always nice, but just in terms of the improvements that everyone’s been making,” head coach Danielle McNamara said. “I feel like everyone’s feeling pretty good heading into conference play. … There isn’t a single person who hasn’t improved tremendously from September, whether it’s in terms of their tennis or just in terms of buying in more [and] being more of a team player.”
At the start of the winter season, the Elis were in flux. After back-to-back subpar finishes in the Ancient Eight under two different head coaches, Yale reinstalled McNamara, who coached the team for eight years until 2013–14 and led it to four league titles. Meanwhile, three key players withdrew from the program, including Madison Battaglia ’20, who quickly asserted herself as one of the most talented contributors on the team.
Playing against elite competition to start the indoor season did not help, either — at least in terms of the win-loss tally. But according to Elizabeth Zordani ’18, the Bulldogs have embraced a process-oriented mentality, which helped them weather the early-season turbulence. No. 4 North Carolina and No. 12 Auburn dealt Yale losses at the ITA National Team Indoor Championship, but for the shorthanded roster, the experience was invaluable.
Zordani, for instance, did not see much of the court in her first two seasons with the program. But thrust into matches against premier competition, she pushed one Tar Heel to a tiebreaker in the first set of her match and defeated a Tiger the next day. This success against nationally renowned programs propelled her in her expanded role. Over the Elis’ perfect weekend on March 24 and 26, Zordani won her doubles matches against both Boston University and Stony Brook in the first seed with captain Tina Jiang ’17.
“It’s obviously not an easy transition going from 12 people [down to nine people],” Zordani said. “It’s hard, especially if there are injuries, because you can’t substitute people as much. It’s unfortunate that it happened, but it happened — and I think we’re responding really well to it. Our team has gotten really close.”
Over spring break, the Elis travelled to California for a week-long trip, where team bonding was as important as the outcomes of matches against three Golden State schools, of which Yale won only one. The West Coast swing was the team’s first road trip of the second semester, and both McNamara and Zordani noted how the trip, along with the small roster, fostered a close connection between teammates and the coaching staff.
Despite the individual nature of tennis, this collective mindset — especially in the face of the off-the-court adversity — has helped elevate the Bulldogs’ level of play.
“I think everyone has stepped up because it’s the spring and it’s dual season,” Caroline Lynch ’17 said. “It’s much more fun for us to play in a dual format with our teammates on either side of us, compared to the individual style of the fall tournaments. … April is when it really matters, and I think people have stepped up over the last couple matches to make sure they’re ready for these next four important weekends.”
With no substitutes, every player and every match will carry the pressure that accompanies Ivy League action. Opala Dhingra ’20, the only freshman currently on the roster, made her first appearance in the starting lineup on Feb. 3, and she has started all but one match since. Dhingra said this immediate exposure has given her confidence, and her focus is on maintaining her intensity and aggressiveness throughout her matches.
For Dhingra and all of her teammates, there is no place to hide in the face of tough competition and off-court tribulations. The only option is to double down on the intensity each player brings to each match, and this fortitude has translated into a series of confidence-boosting victories.
“I think one of our major strengths right now is how hard we’re competing on the court,” Lynch said. “Our team has definitely gotten mentally tougher over the last couple months.”
The Bulldogs have battled storms before, and after a sweltering March, they have endured to greet the sunshine on the other side. But April and its fast-paced slew of Ancient Eight matchups will remain the ultimate test — and Yale will have to rely on the entirety of its small unit to maintain its momentum.
The Elis take on Brown on Sunday at 1 p.m. to begin Ivy League competition.