Kopinski ends fall season on strong note

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Michael Jordan had his “Flu Game.” Call Melissa Kopinski’s most recent performance the “Flu Blast.”

Before she led the Illinois women’s tennis team to the best overall record at the annual Midwest Blast tournament this past weekend, Kopinski wasn’t feeling like her usual self.

The junior from Palos Hills, Ill., had flu-like symptoms, head coach Michelle Dasso said. Kopinksi responded by shrugging off her illness and posting a 5-1 overall record in front of the home crowd at the Atkins Tennis Center. Dasso called Kopinski’s performance “gusty,” and it was one that embodied the “heart and hustle” she witnessed from her team at its first home tournament.

“Once I got on the court, adrenaline rushed through me,” said Kopinski, her voice still hoarse from her weekend ailments. “Michelle (Dasso) got me amped up right before.”

It was Kopinski’s final tournament of this fall season for the Illini. It was also the first tournament she played under the newly-raised All-American banner bearing her likeness at Atkins. Kopinski was named an All-American following her NCAA Championships run last year alongside graduated doubles partner Rachael White. They were the first Illini women’s tennis All-Americans since Lindsey Nimmo received the honor in 1993.

With her All-American status came a preseason No. 35 doubles ranking for Kopinski and her new partner, senior and first-team All-Big Ten honoree Allison Falkin. Kopinski and Falkin encountered early doubles exits, however, in both tournaments they played in this fall, failing to advance past the quarterfinals and prompting Dasso to mix up the doubles lineups. She decided to pair Kopinski with freshman Alexis Casati, who has shown promise in her young college career.

Casati was matched with Kopinski in the practices leading up to the Midwest Blast, where the duo made its doubles debut. They stormed out of the gates to a 3-0 record, winning each of their matches over Missouri, Wake Forest and a rival Purdue squad that posted an 18-6 record last season. Kopinski’s extensive doubles experience helped guide the freshman Casati, revealing her leadership capabilities on the court.

“I really like playing with an upperclassman,” Casati said. “With Melissa it’s just easier because she’s so much more experienced. She’s got great hands and great ground strokes, too, so she’s kind of got the full package.”

Kopinski may have found a permanent doubles partner for the spring in Casati, just as she may have found her groove in singles play as well. Entering the season as the No. 102-ranked singles player in the country, Kopinski had an up-and-down fall season. After being invited to the Riviera/ITA All-American Championships, she picked up a win in the tournament consisting of some of the nation’s top players; however, she was disappointed with her singles performance at the ITA Midwest Regionals in mid-October. She righted the ship on Friday as Illinois’ No. 1 singles player with a comeback win over Andrea Retolaza Andrade of Wake Forest. Kopinski faced No. 72 Cierra Gaytan-Leach of Missouri on Saturday, giving her a chance to pick up a win against the highest-ranked player at the Midwest Blast.

“I knew Cierra from juniors, so I knew how she was going to play,” Kopinski said.

Kopinski got past Gaytan-Leach in the first set with a 7-6(4) tiebreak win before dominating the second set 6-2 to seal the Illini’s marquee win of the tournament. The victory is indicative of Kopinski’s individual goals as she looks toward the spring season.

“It’s good that I got that (win),” Kopinski said. “I can finally start building my ranking and getting that ready for the spring. It would be nice to crack the top 100 finally.”

Kopinski barely missed a perfect weekend. In her final singles match against Purdue’s Lynda Xepoleas, Kopinski easily took the first set before dropping the next two, which stood as the lone blemish on an otherwise impressive showing.

“I did run out of gas,” Kopinski said. “It was stupid errors on my part. I could have gotten it done, but it just didn’t happen.”

The Illini will look to Kopinski to lead the team from her No. 1 singles spot in the spring, much like she did this weekend at the Blast. In a tournament where every Illini had her moment, it was Kopinski that stood out most by overcoming her illness and picking up a signature win along the way.

“She has shown a lot of growth this year in particular, particularly this fall,” Dasso said. “It’s so exciting to see her so passionate on the court, trying to get her teammates going. She’s showing opponents: ‘Hey, this is Melissa Kopinski. I’ve got a banner on the wall, I’ve got swagger.’ 

“I think that’s what we need.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.