There really is no denying it; Penn women’s tennis is on a roll.
Saturday, the Red and Blue (7-6) hosted and promptly dismissed St. John’s (10-3), winning the afternoon tie 6-1. With the win, Penn secured its third straight victory as it heads into conference play in two weeks, starting with a home match against Princeton.
The Red and Blue came out a little flat against the Red Storm. Despite a 6-1 win at No. 2 doubles from the junior tandem of Ria Vaidya and Lina Qostal, St. John’s took the remaining two matches to win the doubles point.
But, from that point on, it was all about the strength of the Quakers. Penn won each of its singles matches in straight sets, securing the win when freshman Ashley Zhu won the Quakers' fourth match of the day with a 6-4, 5-2 (ret.) win over Stephanie Elgegren at No. 3 singles. Notable victories include Viadya’s 6-3, 7-5 singles win over Red Storm senior Anna Morozova and senior Kana Daniel’s 6-4, 6-1 win over St. john's freshman and national No. 49 Jessica Livianu, who won the top singles flight of Penn’s Cissie Leary Invitational last fall.
The Quakers’ 7-6 record is a little misleading. Six of their wins have come in the last seven matches that they’ve played, highlighted by a five-win spring break tour of Florida, making up for a 1-5 start to their non-conference season.
But in reality, what really has changed for Penn?
Looking at tactics, the members of Penn women’s tennis are still doing what they do best. Daniel is still using her heavy topspin forehand to draw errors from her opponents. Vaidya continues to fire aces with her big lefty serve. And the pairing of Qostal and sophomore Marta Kowalska use their full-court game, on both the singles and the doubles court. So how has Penn suddenly turned it on in the recent months?
If you ask Daniel, she’ll point out that, in tennis, the margins between winning and losing are so small to begin with.
"All the matches were very competitive, it could’ve gone either way, and the score’s not very reflective of that,” the senior captain said. “Usually, when you’re not used to playing that many matches, when you get into these tight moments, you tend to freak out and play safe. Match play helps us in those moments to stay calm.”
Looking at the singles sets played on Saturday, the Quakers won all 12 of them, but, speaking to those small margins, the individual score lines of those sets were fairly competitive. The Quakers won one set in a tiebreak, courtesy of senior Luba Vazehnina, and won three 7-5 sets. Only one of the completed sets Penn won in singles was won with a loss of less than three games.
The numbers were very tight in what appeared to be a very comfortable afternoon for the Quakers. It is apparent that with competitive seasoning, the Red and Blue are less flustered by what’s in front of them. It becomes easier to play against a new name with an unknown game style and adapt accordingly. Daniel did just that against a highly-touted newcomer in Livianu.
“Every match varies, depending on your opponent; what stays the same is the way I start matches,” the Spain native said. “I typically don’t know the players that I play agains when the match starts, but I continue to focus on doing what I know how to do.”
A team this tested is hard to shake. Daniel won the last five games of her match to close out Livianu, unfazed by an injury timeout taken by the St. John’s freshman. Zhu shook off a 1-3 start to her match to win 10 of the next 13 games. And most importantly, the entire team shrugged off a disappointing doubles rotation to handily win its singles matches.
As the Quakers enter their first conference match against Princeton, it will be key to see how Penn’s match fitness will stack up against the Ancient Eight. How many setbacks will Penn shrug off, and long can their winning streak stretch?
One thing’s for sure: right now, this team is on fire.
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