Freshman step up and Illini women’s tennis squeaks past San Jose State

By Cole Henke

Freshmen Grace Tapak and Jade Hilton were crucial in the Illini’s 4-3 win over San Jose State Spartans on Saturday at Atkins Tennis Center.

The Illini started off strong, taking the doubles point from the Spartans with two 6-2 victories from the pairings of senior Melissa Kopinski and sophomore Louise Kwong, and sophomores Alexis Casati and Tapak.

Kopinski was a late scratch from the singles lineup, causing the whole order to shift. Tapak shifted up to the five spot and Hilton moved to the four spot.

The Spartans struck first in singles with Gaelle Ray’s 6-1, 6-4 victory over Illini sophomore Jerricka Boone at the No. 3 singles spot, and Sybille Gauvain’s 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 victory over Casati at the No. 1 singles spot.

Tapak turned the momentum of the match at No. 5 singles. After a 7-5 first set victory, Tapak fell behind in the second set 2-4, but made a strong comeback and won 6-4 to even the team score at 2-2.

According to Tapak, she got overconfident to begin the match and started going after shots that weren’t there. She said once she settled down, she took control.

Head coach Michelle Dasso gave Tapak a lot of credit for coming back in her match and said she was proud of Tapak’s effort in a high-pressure situation.

“She played like a warrior out there,” Dasso said. “It’s always fun to see your freshmen come through in tough situations.”

After Tapak finished, the last three matches, featuring Kwong, senior Julia Jamieson and Hilton, all went to third sets. Jamieson lost hers 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, but Kwong picked up a 5-7, 7-5, 6-1 win, which left the deciding match to Hilton.

In the middle of the third set, Hilton started suffering from leg cramps and had to take an injury timeout. She came back out onto the court, but the cramps nagged at her the rest of the match.

“It was weird. I’ve never cramped before,” Hilton said after the match. “I’m in really good shape, and one of the fastest runners on the team, so it kind of surprised me.”

Toward the end of the third set, her opponent started cramping, too, and it became a battle of toughness.

When the match went into a tie-breaker for the third set, the whole building started to get nervous, but Hilton was confident.

“I wasn’t really nervous,” Hilton said. “I was excited. This was my match. My moment to prove myself.”

Hilton won the third set 8-6, clinching the win for the Illini.

The win puts the Illini at 3-1, but more importantly for Hilton and Tapak, it provided their first real collegiate test.

“I know what I can do now,” Hilton said. “I know I can win in a third set. I know I can win the big match now.”

Cole can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @cole_Henke.