There’s a team from Penn competing for a national championship this weekend. But nobody would be surprised if you didn’t know that.
While a variety of the University’s perennial varsity teams are in the midst of quests for Ivy League titles and bids to their sports' respective end-of-season tournaments, Penn club tennis will take part in the United States Tennis Association Tennis on Campus National Championship in Cary, N.C., beginning on Thursday.
Competing against teams from 63 other schools across the nation, the Quakers are accustomed to the pressurized environment that accompanies playing at nationals, having qualified for the tournament in each of the past four seasons. However, for the casual tennis fan, the structure of club tennis may be anything but familiar.
In a varsity tennis match at the collegiate level, two teams compete in three doubles games for a single point. Once a team has captured two of those matches, it secures the point, before immediately taking part in six singles matchups, with each match winner earning an additional point.
However, the USTA’s Tennis on Campus program differs wildly from that model. Whereas varsity tennis sees teams aim for the highest point total (out of seven) via singles matches, co-ed groups have their players compete in a combination of men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles matches.
And, similar to the World TeamTennis model, squads do not win based on the number of individual matches secured. Instead, the team that wins the most overall games is the victor.
It isn’t just fans who may be confused by what they see on the court. For many players who competed in the sport at younger ages, transitioning can be incredibly difficult too.
“For people who have played tennis their whole lives, it’s very weird,” Penn club tennis co-captain Vivek Nimgaonkar said. “It’s very different from a normal varsity high school or Division I match. There’s definitely a lot that’s different to get used to.”
In addition to the unconventional structure of the head-to-head matches, teams are also able to substitute players in for one another, even in singles games.
“Switching people in can be challenging,” Nimgaonkar said. “It can throw off your rhythm if you’re beating one guy and the other team substitutes someone else in. It can also take time to adjust, and that knocks you off your game a little bit.
“In this type of tennis, that can be costly. It’s not just good enough to win the match, you need to fight for every point.”
Like most teams in college sports, the Quakers take part in a variety of contests early in the season before eventually entering a stretch run. Whereas most of Penn’s teams face nonconference opponents before buckling down for Ivy League play, the club tennis program competes in local dual matches and tournaments before beginning its quest to qualify for nationals later in the spring.
At the beginning of the year, the squad — which usually features around 10 men and 10 women each season, all of whom have experience playing at the high school or club level — does battle with nearby opponents. The Red and Blue often face in-state rivals, such as Villanova, Penn State and Temple, as well as Delaware and Columbia. They even went to a tournament in Wisconsin this season.
Beyond taking on a handful of the 600 schools that take part in Tennis on Campus, the Quakers also face opponents in a sectional tournament. Out of the approximately 20 teams in attendance, the four teams to reach the event’s semifinals usually qualify for nationals.
With that in mind, Penn was heartbroken when it dropped a close match to Pittsburgh in the quarterfinal of its sectional. However, because each school can send only one team to nationals, when two of Penn State’s teams reached the sectional’s semifinals, the Quakers were the unlikely benefactors.
“We had a bit of a non-traditional route to nationals,” Nimgaonkar said. “In addition to the three teams that qualified because of the semifinals, we ended up having a playoff between us, Villanova and Delaware. We beat both of them, but it was a little too close for comfort.”
In addition to its sheer ability to qualify for the 64-team tournament, the club’s most impressive aspect is that it is completely student run.
“There are a few tournaments — including nationals — that are run by the USTA, so those are set up by others,” Nimgaonkar said. “But we as members of the club do the registration, sign up for tournaments and run the team.”
Unlike some of the teams the Quakers may see at nationals, the squad also does not have any outside coaching. Instead, the team’s co-captains — Nimgaonkar and Lauren Rosenstock, the women’s captain — are in charge of establishing lineups and running practices.
“It definitely does make things more difficult,” Nimgaonkar said. “If you’re one of the people in the lineup and captain at the same time, there can be what seems like a conflict of interest by putting yourself there. And it can also be hard at times to pull someone off the court in the middle of a match.
“It can be fraught with some problems, but we’re lucky because everyone we have buys into the team and trusts [the captains’] judgment.”
The team’s ability to trust one another may be pivotal against some of the best teams in the country this weekend. Penn will be matched up against Northeastern, UCF and Indiana in its four-team group beginning Thursday.
“In my time on the team, I feel like this is our strongest group with the most upside I’ve ever seen,” Nimgaonkar said. “It really just depends on how we finish in our first few matches in group play. If we can come out and do really well against Northeastern, we should have a solid chance of accomplishing some great things this weekend.”Comments powered by Disqus
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