Illini eager to prove themselves on road

By Harini Ganesh

After a successful weekend on the home courts, the Illini women’s tennis team makes its way to Knoxville, Tenn., to compete in its first road game of the dual-match season on Saturday against No. 19 Tennessee.

Although it celebrated two wins over Marquette and Western Michigan over the weekend, Illinois knows Tennessee will offer tough competition.

“Tennessee is big,” assistant coach JoAnne Russell said. “We’ve never beaten them, but we’ve come close.”

Russell added that it is seniors Brianna Knue and Pavlina Akritas’ final year and now is the time to defeat Tennessee. Last year, the Lady Volunteers defeated the Illini 4-3 in a tight match. Russell noticed the team played much better in its season-opening matches. She knows that by not changing that game or mentality, the team can do well.

“Tennessee’s just another team,” she said. “They should just go out there and play with the same confidence they did against Western Michigan and Marquette.”

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The main problem for the Illini is their doubles game, with practice this week being devoted to improving the doubles play. Even the players acknowledge that it is crucial for the team to get the doubles point.

“We need to get a good start,” Akritas said. “We need to win the doubles point. We’re doing pretty well in singles.”

Akritas further explained that there are only four courts at Tennessee, so the singles would start with four matches. If the team loses the doubles point, the singles players will have added pressure to win their matches. Only after the first singles are done will the remaining two players get a chance to play their matches.

“Our main thing is to execute,” sophomore Anastasia Sokolova said. “We need to set it up and just finish up the point.”

Despite all the techniques the team needs to work on, Russell is expecting the players to play better than they did against Western Michigan or Marquette. Russell said she has seen the confidence level rise in the younger players, such as sophomore Alejandra Meza Cuadra and freshman Shivani Dave’.

“I want everyone to be excited,” Russell said. “We’re playing to win. We’re just playing Tennessee. I don’t want them to look at the rankings.”

The Illini came close to defeating Tennessee last year and Sokolova said that it’s important to take hold early and close the matches out. The key to staying focused is to be confident.

“We need to go out fired up and pumped up,” Sokolova said of the Illini. “Especially since we’re away, we need to be loud and support each other.”