The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

One last ride: Kate Duong reflects on journey, discusses final season as Illini

James Chen
Katherine Duong serves the ball in her match against Lucia De Santa Ana on Nov. 7.

All-American. Professional tournament champion. NCAA doubles national championship qualifier. Highest-ever ITA doubles rank in Illini history. Kate Duong has done it all over the last three years and still has one more to go. However, coming to Illinois as a freshman from California, Duong didn’t know what to expect from college tennis.

“I obviously came as the lone freshman that year, so it was kind of a little bit of a pressure situation because I didn’t have anyone next to me to lean on,” Duong said. “I had to lean on a lot of the older girls, and they were all super helpful in having me make that transition from junior tennis into college tennis.”

Despite being in a new situation of team-focused tennis, Duong adjusted quickly during her freshman season and posted a strong 14-8 record in her debut season for the Illini. One of the older girls who mentored Duong was the now-graduated Asuka Kawai, with whom she still keeps in contact today. Kawai was a senior when Duong was a freshman, and she credits her with developing her mental fortitude on the court and providing key advice throughout her time as an Illini.

“Obviously, I’m a senior now, and she hasn’t been on the team for three years, but I’m still in constant communication with her,” Duong said. “I’m still asking her for advice because she left such a big impact on me. And I think without her, I wouldn’t have been able to be as mentally strong as I am now.”

Now, Duong is in a position of leadership as a senior and has a new generation of Illini to help lead — a completely different role compared to when she joined the team just a few years ago. When asked if she’s taken anyone under her wing, Duong had a hard time responding, voicing her love for all the underclassmen on the team. After a moment, however, Duong listed sophomore Violeta Martinez, with whom she is currently living, as one of the underclassmen she believes she has been able to provide the most guidance. 

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“Since we have a similar game style, it’s easy to talk about how our matches went and what we could have done better,” Duong said. “But obviously, everyone is their own player, so I try not to hinder their game style too much. … I just try to give them little pieces of advice here and there because I’m a little more of an experienced player, but they’re all amazing players.”

Despite it being her final season, with life after college tennis on the horizon, Duong seems as focused as ever — still changing her game. Coming off of an impressive 27-7 doubles season with junior Megan Heuser, in which she was named an All-American, Duong wants to go further and is fine-tuning even the smallest details to produce another historic season. 

“This year, I’ve been working on trying to be a little bit more steady from the baseline,” Duong said. “I tend to be an aggressive player, and sometimes I don’t need to be because sometimes the match doesn’t need that.”

Duong hasn’t been the only one putting in the work for this season. The entire team, from the upperclassmen down to the freshman, has been training hard and showing its competitive spirit during the fall preseason. Each player fought through many close matches, which bodes well for the team’s depth in the spring.

“Our team is really developed this year,” Duong said. “We’re all pretty even playing-wise, which is really exciting because we want to have that problem. We want to have so many people on the team that want to play and can play and that can make an impact at every single position.”

Duong has completely bought into that team spirit, providing an example for her younger teammates to follow. She’s made it clear that no matter her individual goals, taking care of her spot in the lineup is her number one priority to ensure team success.

“I just want to make an impact wherever I am on the team,” Duong said. “I want to get ranked, obviously. That’s always been a goal for me. But that’s not always my main goal. My main goal is to take care of my position on the court.”

No matter what happens this season, it is certain that the team will miss having Duong on the court, and she will always return that sentiment after she moves on from Illinois.

“I’m going to miss being in a team environment for sure,” Duong said. “You just can’t replicate it anywhere else.”



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Sahil Mittal
Sahil Mittal, Senior Sports Reporter
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