‘It’s a tremendous honor’: Duong leads Illinois women’s tennis in court one singles, doubles

Sophomore+Kate+Duong+performs+a+forehand+stroke+to+send+the+ball+back+to+the+opposing+team.+Duong+has+made+a+significant+stride+within+her+career+in+tennis+by+earning+a+spot+in+the+top+courts+within+her+second+season.

Sidney Malone

Sophomore Kate Duong performs a forehand stroke to send the ball back to the opposing team. Duong has made a significant stride within her career in tennis by earning a spot in the top courts within her second season.

By James Kim, Staff Writer

Playing the top courts at a school as big as Illinois is a difficult feat to achieve. Many players have to wait until their final years to earn those spots, and even then, earning them is never a guarantee. However, sophomore Kate Duong has achieved this in just her second season playing for Illinois women’s tennis.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Duong said. “Coming into Illinois, I didn’t think I would ever play this role. I think it’s a great honor, and I want to play my role well. I know I can lead the team to do bigger and better things. I just want to keep working hard and keep playing my best so I can do better for Illinois.”

Duong had a successful freshman year, posting winning records across the board. She went 14-8 overall in singles play and 13-9 overall in doubles play. Heading into this season, Duong said she was not surprised by the news that she would be leading the team in singles. The role given to her in doubles, though, was more of a shock.

“I did not expect myself to be court one for doubles, given last year I played on court three,” Duong said. “I assumed I would play around two or three doubles honestly, because I’d never thought of myself as much of a doubles player. But then this year, it was something I’d focused on. I wanted to get better, I wanted to be reliable and I wanted to play higher than I was last year, and I think I improved a lot.”

Duong’s additional work on her doubles game earned her coaches’ trust and has seen her get off to a strong start this year, partnered with freshman Megan Heuser. The duo is 6-3 together, winning five of these matches in front of their home fans at Atkins Tennis Center. 

The chemistry between the two underclassmen is evident. They have a good understanding of each other and share similar work ethics. Duong attributes this strong bond with Heuser as the key to their success on the court, emphasizing how they know they can “set each other up for success” and achieve big things for Illinois.

As the top Illini in singles play, Duong faces off against the best tennis players from other schools. It can be a lot of pressure for even senior players, so as a sophomore, Duong utilizes a mixture of mental strength and advice given to her from upperclassmen teammates to keep her calm and relaxed. 

Duong recalls how important the support from senior Asuka Kawai was for her last season. The now-graduated Kawai was an All-American who had been playing on Illinois’ top courts for many years, and she was vital to helping Duong turn her whole mindset around for the better.

“I started off at the number two position in the first few matches but immediately got moved down, ending up at five singles,” Duong said. “I wasn’t playing well, I was in my head, I wasn’t confident and I just kept thinking my opponent was better than me. However, senior Asuka Kawai helped me so much. She was able to tell me the ways she handled the pressure, and it really helped me rise in the lineup all the way back to number two.”

Duong has kept these same tips in mind going into this season. Even when battling against the best players in the country, she’s able to remain positive knowing she deserves to be there, competing as one of them. However, crucial advice and support from senior teammates was not the only major takeaway from last season. Duong has some unfinished business in the Big Ten, especially against Purdue, which Illinois plays in April.

“I know their number one this year,” Duong said. “I played her last year three times and lost all three times. The very last time we played was at the Big Ten Championships, where I had the lead but let her come back, so I’m very eager to play her this year. We’ve both grown so much, and I’m just looking forward to playing her again and getting my revenge.”

This year, Illinois will be taking a young team to compete in the Big Ten, having welcomed three freshmen into the program through the likes of Heuser, Kida Ferrari and Kasia Treiber, all of whom have already proven they’re starter level. 

“I think it’s tremendous that we have so many underclassmen in the lineup,” Duong said. “It just shows you how good our team can be, especially in the future. Having three freshmen in the lineup who are all performing and living up to their standards is just a testament to how we practice and how our coaches are helping us to develop. We can only go up from here.”

As the top player on a team of young Illini, Duong is now taking a mentoring role herself.

“I want to be that role model for people,” Duong said. “I want to help our freshmen out, showing them that yes, I am a sophomore, but I can still be the best player on the team and play number one doubles and singles. I’m just so happy in this spot, and I don’t want to let anyone down.”

Illinois is currently 6-3 and will be in action against Cornell next. The matchup will serve as the team’s final home appearance until March, and a win would extend the Illini’s undefeated home streak to six games. This would be a great boost for the Illini as the start of the Big Ten looms on the horizon.

“I feel very confident in our team right now,” Duong said. “Last year we started off with four losses, which was really hard. But coming into this season, we were able to get some good wins, and we’re undefeated at home. We’ve already got six wins under our belt, which gives us confidence going into Big Ten play.”

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