Freshmen bring ‘potential’ to women’s tennis team

By Derek Barichello

When Jennifer McGaffigan and Tiffany Eklov graduated last spring, women’s tennis coach Sujay Lama hated to see them go. This season, he has four freshmen on the team who remind him of that fall in 1999 when McGaffigan and Eklov first came to Illinois.

McGaffigan went on to become the winningest singles and doubles player in program history and Eklov stomped through the Big Ten last season. Together they led the program to its highest ranking ever and an upset of No. 1 Duke.

Although they were talented, they were very raw upon arrival. The one quality that shined through both of them was their ability to work hard.

That is what freshmen Momei Qu, Macall Harkins, Anastasia Sokolova and Elizabeth Dolen bring to the table, Lama said. They have a strong work ethic.

“They have what it takes to be good,” Lama said. “When Tiffany and Jenny came in, you could tell by the way they worked, they were going to be good. Our freshmen now have that similar work ethic. I can see it in them when I give a lesson, they are so focused. They have that look in their eye.”

Lama said Sokolova, who is from St. Petersburg, Russia, could be the most talented recruit in program history. He said Qu, who is from Portland, Ore., is the most focused and very goal oriented.

Lyons, Ill.-native, Dolen joins junior Pavlina Akritas as the only other walk-on on the team. Like Akritas, she raises the intensity of the team with her work ethic.

Lama said Harkins might have the most potential of the group. Like Eklov, she is a serve and volley player, but unlike her Harkins is 6’0″ and left-handed.

“It is very rare that you see a serve and volley player in women’s tennis,” Lama said. “She has the potential to become a tremendous singles and doubles player. She’s very unique.”

Another quality of the freshmen is their willingness to learn.

“They trust us (coaches),” Lama said. “When players believe in their coach and allow themselves to improve and change, they are going to get better. It is a blessing.”

Along with their hard work and coachability, the freshmen are a close group. Over the summer they conditioned in Champaign together and traveled with each other when they competed in the summer circuits.

“Four is a big number of freshmen to join a team,” Dolen said. “For us to be this close makes it easier for us and the whole team. It is easier for the team to take us in because it is like we are one, rather than four.”

Although the group is one of the best freshman classes in Lama’s tenure, he does not want to set expectations too high for them this fall.

“They have potential,” Lama said. “‘Potential’ being the big word. I do not see them having a tremendous impact right away, but down the road, yes. I think they still have to put the work in, get experience and coaching, which I see them doing.”

More than anything, the new Illini enjoy the team camaraderie.

“We like being part of this team,” Qu said. “It is a great feeling to be a part of a team. In high school, you competed for yourself; now we all get a chance to play as a team.”