Illini capture Big Ten opener

Orange laces on one shoe and blue laces on the other, topped with a gray or blue armband. It was the Big Ten opener at the Atkins Tennis Center for the Illinois women’s tennis team on Saturday.

While some may have thought that Illinois’ 8-2 record heading into conference play was largely untested, the Illini responded with a 5-2 win against No. 31 Indiana (8-5, 0-1 Big Ten), a team Illinois hadn’t beaten in more than four years. After Saturday’s match against the Hoosiers, Illinois head coach Michelle Dasso was impressed with her team’s resiliency.

“We never gave up,” Dasso said. “It was an unbelievable way to start off our Big Ten season. We kind of set the stage for the rest of our season. No matter what happens, we’re going to get out there and battle and never give up. That says a lot about our team.”

Indiana’s quick 5-0 lead at No. 1 doubles initially spelled trouble for Illinois. The duo of sophomore Leigh Finnegan and freshman Chelcie Abajian battled back to tie the match at 6-6 before falling short and losing 8-6. But wins at the No. 2 and No. 3 spots secured the doubles point for the Illini.

Junior Megan Fudge moved to 11-0 in singles after grabbing the first singles point for Illinois, 6-1, 6-1. After Fudge cruised through her match, she had plenty of time to spare as the five other matches went into three close sets.

“It was more nerve-racking,” Fudge said. “Watching other people play is so much more worse than playing yourself because you can’t do the points for them.

“I get really nervous watching the others. But I get to support them and shout and scream and call ‘Illini’ and it’s fun watching,” Fudge added.

Sophomore Marisa Lambropolous dropped her first set to Indiana’s Sigrid Fischer at the No. 4 spot, 6-2, but cruised in her next two sets with two 6-1 victories, which Dasso said “were probably the best sets I’ve seen her play all year.”

“I just tried to play one point at a time and try to let the first set go,” Lambropolous said.

Lambropolous’ win grabbed the third crucial point for the Illini, forcing the Hoosiers into must-win situations at the No. 1, 3, 5 and 6 singles.

Finnegan, ranked No. 86 nationally, clinched the Illini win at the No. 1 singles in dramatic fashion. After winning her first set 6-3, Finnegan dropped her second set, 6-1, against Russian native Katya Zapadalova. At one point in the third set, Zapadalova appeared to have won the match, leading 5-2 with a match point chance. Later, Zapadalova threw her racket and held back tears as Finnegan stole the third set, 7-5, and secured the win for the Illini.

“It was huge,” Fudge said. “It was a Big Ten opener. We were very nervous and very pumped up … The fight to win against Indiana, a team we haven’t beaten in a long time, it’s been an aim for us this year. We just accomplished something great for us.”

After its Big Ten opener on Saturday, Illinois traveled to face Purdue (5-5, 1-1 Big Ten) on Sunday.

Facing an unranked Purdue squad, the Illini edged the Boilermakers in a 4-3 victory.

After losing No. 1 doubles, the Illini were able to secure the doubles point with wins at the No. 2 and No. 3 spots. The doubles win was crucial, as Illinois suffered quick losses at the No. 6 and No. 4 singles. Wins at the No. 1, 3 and 5 spots locked up the win.

While the Illini grabbed their eight consecutive win and improved to 10-2 and 2-0 in conference, Fudge (11-1) lost at the No. 2 singles, ending her run of 11 straight victories.

Notching the two Big Ten wins gives the Illini momentum as they prepare for their toughest match of the season on Friday at No. 1 Northwestern.