Illinois honors four seniors, bids farewell in regular season finale

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

SAsuka Kawai, Mia Rabinowitz, EmileeDuong and Sasha Belaya (left to right) pose for a photo on senior day Sunday. The Illinois women’s tennis team won the match 4-3, upsetting No. 7 Northwestern.

By Will Payne, Assistant Sports Editor

This past Sunday, the Illinois women’s tennis team finished off its regular season with a massive upset over the No. 7 Northwestern Wildcats. Before the match, the team honored the four seniors on the squad: Mia Rabinowitz, Sasha Belaya, Emilee Duong and Asuka Kawai. All of them have had storied careers with the Illini.

Mia Rabinowitz

Coming from Laurel Springs School and growing up in Tenafly, New Jersey, Rabinowitz became enamored about the prospect of playing for the Illini when she was a senior in high school.
“I had three visits scheduled, and I didn’t want to go on any others after I came here,” Rabinowitz said. “I really loved everything about it; the community around here which gets behind tennis is really special.”
During her time with Illinois, Rabinowitz won 47 career singles matches and 41 doubles matches. Her 28 singles wins during the 2018 season are tied for the 10th most in program history. Rabinowitz won Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Week twice and the 2018 team MVP award, and she received a 2019-20 All-Big Ten selection.
When reminiscing about her years with the team, Rabinowitz and many of the other seniors said some of their favorite memories were from the Blue/Grey tournament their freshman year.
“We were on an incredible run, being number five in the country,” Rabinowitz said. “We had just beaten three really good teams to win the tournament, and everyone was just so connected. We were having such a great time.”
After graduation, Rabinowitz is continuing her collegiate tennis career at Louisiana State University, as she plans on playing for another year or two.

Sasha Belaya

Belaya attended Viera High School in Melbourne, Florida. Though she looked at playing tennis at some southern schools, she ended up deciding to commit to Illinois after some recruitment from her hometown.
“Jaclyn Switkes, who was on the team a couple of years ago, she was also from Florida,” Belaya said. “I knew it was a great school. I’d love to just come for a visit and see how it is. And so as soon as I got here and met Evan Clark, the girls, the facilities and the campus, I just fell in love.”
Belaya totaled 38 career singles wins and 35 doubles wins while at Illinois. She also received 2019 Academic All-Big Ten honors and the 2018 Most Improved Player team award.
Belaya said her favorite memory with the Illini was when the team found out they were ranked number five in the country after the Blue/Grey tournament.
“I remember getting the text in our team group chat, and we all could not believe it,” Belaya said. “That first second we walked into the locker room, it was just an amazing feeling; we were all so happy.”
Upon graduating, Belaya will be playing her fifth year at University of North Carolina Wilmington while pursuing a yearlong master’s degree in integrated marketing communications.

Emilee Duong

Duong arrived at Illinois from Placentia, California, where she went to Valencia High School. Though she was being recruited by and committed to another program, Duong made a last-minute switch to the Illini.
“Coach Clark let me come on campus and visit,” Duong said. “And after I went, I fell in love with the school and the team that was there at the time. Half of them were my teammates freshman year, and I really enjoyed being with each and every one of them.”
Duong will graduate boasting 53 career singles wins and 42 doubles wins. She was ranked as high as 117th in the country for singles in September 2018. Her career accolades include 2020 Academic All-Big Ten honors.
Apart from the result against Northwestern Sunday, Duong, much like the other seniors, remembers her freshman year fondly.
“We were ranked as high as five and steadily stayed in the top 20 throughout the season,” Duong said. “We beat two ranked teams, and I think those wins were an instigator to our success that year.”
Duong’s original plan after graduating was to use her engineering degree she received from Illinois. But, after student athletes received another year of eligibility due to COVID-19, she plans on playing her fifth year at another Big Ten school while pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering.

Asuka Kawai

Kawai attended Palatine High School in Illinois before committing to play for the Illini. When she initially came to campus, she knew it would be a fantastic fit for many different reasons.
“When I came to visit here, I just felt like the academic situation and tennis buzz was a really great fit for me,” Kawai said. “The program and the facilities we had here were amazing, and I really felt like I wanted to be a part of this.”
During her career with Illinois, Kawai won 43 singles matches and 46 doubles matches. In September 2019, she was ranked 20th in the country in singles play.
Kawai won a plethora of awards while with the Illini. She received Big Ten Athlete of the Week twice, a 2019 Unanimous All-Big Ten selection, 2019 team MVP and the 2018 Fighting Illini spirit award.
Kawai said one of her favorite individual memories with Illinois had to be making the NCAA tournament in 2019. She concluded that her top memory, though, was the quarterfinalist finish in the singles championships, which was the best finish in program history.
“It was definitely something that was super memorable for me,” Kawai said. “I was an underdog in the tournament, and I thought it was a great opportunity for me to just play and see how I could do.”
After graduating with a degree in psychology, Kawai has a job lined up back in her home country of Japan, where she will work in the medical field.

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