‘It’s exciting for sure’: Underclassmen Duong, Heuser take command of No. 1 doubles for Illini women’s tennis

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Sydney Laput

Illinois women’s tennis Kate Duong celebrates during her doubles match with Megan Heuser against Chicago State on Jan. 23. Duong and Heuser’s strong partnership aids in the team’s success for doubles.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Opposites attract.

Though typically associated with personalities, the same concept can be applied to the playing styles of Illini women’s tennis sophomore Kate Duong and freshman Megan Heuser, who have taken control of the team’s No. 1 doubles position.

“We’re kinda opposites,” Duong said. “She’s really good at the net and then I’m pretty solid on the baseline, so when you put two and two together, it just works. I can set her up really well, and I think that’s how we win most of our points.”

Duong and Heuser took command of playing Court 1 doubles early in the winter, earning the spot during Illinois’ first dual match of the season against No. 11 Baylor on Jan. 16. 

Though their debut match resulted in a narrow 7-5 loss and a 6-1 overall defeat to the Bears, the Illini bounced back the next day with a 5-2 win over Brigham Young.

The Illinois pair trailed 5-2 in doubles play, though results on other courts clinched the doubles point for the Illini.

While both players fell in three sets to Baylor in singles action the night before, they each bounced back with singles wins against BYU.

In their first doubles win of spring competition, Duong and Heuser cruised to victory, winning 6-1 against Harvard duo Maxi Duncan and Iveta Daujotaite at Atkins Tennis Center on Thursday night.

“I think it just shows you how confident we are,” Duong said. “The freshmen and myself included, we’re not afraid to play the big players. We’re not afraid to go after them, and that’s just elevating our game even further. That’s gonna help us in the long run for sure.”

Heuser credits both her own and Duong’s serving abilities and overall presence at the net for their first doubles win together.

“I think we work so well just because we both serve really big, and when we’re on our first serve, even if we hit second serves we can still pull them out, and we set up our net so easily,” Heuser said. “It’s just a matter of making returns for us. I feel like that’s gonna really determine whether we win or lose. … We’re so good at putting balls away at the net and just complementing each other is amazing.”

Three freshmen were brought in and have already stepped into the starting lineup, with Heuser, Kida Ferrari and Kasia Treiber all competing in singles and doubles play. Ferrari recorded her first career singles win in the loss to the Bears, while Treiber notched her first singles win against the Cougars on Jan. 17.

Still a sophomore, Duong has emerged as a leader and has taken the freshmen under her wing despite having just one year of college experience. Going 14-8 in singles and 13-9 in doubles play last season, Duong has taken on the Illini’s No. 1 court spot in both singles and doubles play.

“She just leads by example,” said head coach Evan Clark. “Last year she was a freshman and didn’t quite have a voice but was still leading by example. This year, she’s gotten more of a voice, more comfortable in her own skin. … She definitely leads by example and is just one of the best kids I’ve ever coached: attitude, effort, just never any issues. 

“She just kinda puts her head down and works, and I think she’s just a great example for the rest of our team. Of course her playing No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles shows the team what you need to do to play at that level, and she’s been fantastic and we’re certainly happy to have her.”

After four seniors graduated following the 2021 season – Sasha Belaya, Emilee Duong, Asuka Kawai and Mia Rabinowitz, the Illini had to replace their production, and that stems from the team’s underclassmen, including Duong. 

“It’s exciting for sure,” Clark said. “We had a really good class that just left us last year, and when you bring in a lot of new kids, you never know how they’re gonna shake out, but our last couple matches have been just exciting to see how quickly they’ve adapted to the college game and more or less just how they handle themselves and their energy levels.”

Clark says he was initially unsure how the pair would click, though he is impressed with the way they have bonded and grown over the course of a short few weeks.

With Duong’s strong freshman campaign and Heuser’s dominance at the juniors level, going 122-3 at Lakes Community High School, the talent was already there, and despite the uncommon nature of having two underclassmen playing together on Court 1, Clark says he has “been really pleased” with the partnership thus far. 

With conference play on the horizon, Heuser expresses excitement and ambition for both individual and team success, both this season and beyond.

“It’s just so cool how deep we are and our team being young, and that it’s not just the seniors and juniors playing at (Court) 1; it’s the freshman and sophomore playing at one,” Heuser said. “That shows a lot and what we could do in the future because we’ll be together for three years at least.

“We can all play tennis, we all have a game style, we all got here for a reason (and) we’re all here for a reason.”

 

@JacksonJanes3

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