As the ITA All-American Championships commenced last week in Tulsa, few could have predicted that the eventual champions would hail from New Haven.
Jessie Gong ’22 and Samantha Martinelli ’21 departed from Yale last week as an unseeded duo, but they wore their underdog label with pride as they captured the first title of such magnitude not only in Yale women’s tennis history, but also in the history of the Ivy League.
The ITA All-American Championship is a premier trophy in Division I tennis, and it has evaded Yale for its tennis program’s entire history. But there is always a first for everything, and Gong and Martinelli set that precedent.
“In Division I college tennis, there are three national championships,” head coach Danielle McNamara said. “This is the first one. The second one is in November. And the last one is NCAAs. This is the first All-American championship in women’s singles or doubles in the history of the tournament from the Ivy League… so this is a very historic win.”
The tournament featured 32 of the nation’s best collegiate doubles teams, 24 of which were granted direct entry into the main draw. Ranked as the No. 29 doubles squad during the ITA Preseason Poll, Gong and Martinelli got off to a hot start in their 2019 campaign. After going undefeated at both the Bulldog Invitational and the Wolverine Invitational, the tandem rolled into Tulsa on a hot streak. Their performance helped them receive one of the coveted 24 direct entries, but they were not named to any of the top eight seeds.
In the first round of play, the Bulldogs took on the No. 34 pair, Julia Adams and Katarina Kozarov from Furman University. It did not take very long for Yale to get into a groove, as they closed out the match 8–5.
In the round of 16, Gong and Martinelli pulled off an astounding upset of the sixth-seeded duo, Jayci Goldsmith and Tatiana Makarova from Texas A&M. Goldsmith and Makarova are ranked as the No. 8 doubles team in the nation, but the Elis pulled off a tight 8–6 victory to advance to the quarterfinals.
Yale carried its momentum into the next round of play, cruising to an 8–5 victory over Sara Daavettila and Alexa Graham from the University of North Carolina. Daavettila and Graham are currently ranked No. 20 in the country, nine spots above Gong and Martinelli.
In the semifinals, the format switched to a standard two out of three sets, with the third set being a super tiebreaker. Gong and Martinelli took on the No. 31 squad, Marie Mattel and Rebeka Stolmar from University of Central Florida.
“To be honest, I don’t think we were expecting to go as far as we did, but we focused on our playing and that went a long way,” Gong said.
Yale got off to a good start, capturing the first set 6–4. UCF would not go down easily, however, as they thrashed the Elis 6–2 in the second set. With the match level, and their hopes of advancing on the line, Gong and Martinelli held their ground and won the tiebreak 10–6.
In the finals, the unseeded duo from New Haven found itself in uncharted territory. Their opponent was the No. 24 team from the University of Tennessee, Tenika McGiffin and Kaitlin Staines. The Bulldogs got off to a rocky start, winning just two games in the first set.
“After the first set, we actually loosened up because we really felt there was nothing left to lose,” Martinelli said. “We started just having fun and enjoying the moment and things just clicked. We fed off of each other’s positive energy and that made all the difference.”
Handling the pressure well, the two switched gears and their plan paid off, leading to a second-set victory 6–3 and setting up a third-set super tiebreaker. With the championship on the line, Gong and Martinelli clawed out a 10–8 tiebreak victory to clinch the title.
While much of the team did not travel to the tournament, Gong and Martinelli were grateful for the support they received. The two expressed their thanks to the rest of the squad as well as to their head coach, who said she feels this win is a sign of future success.
“Our players, our program, we’re on a path,” McNamara said. “It’s been a longtime goal to be a top contending team and this is so valuable for our players. We’re going in the right direction.”
With Sunday’s monumental victory, Gong and Martinelli made history as the first squad from the Ancient Eight to win this tournament. They now lead the nation in doubles wins and look to maintain their undefeated status at the ITA Northeast Regionals on Oct. 17.
Akshar Agarwal | firstname.lastname@example.org