By Gavin Oliver
CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson has completed the first phase in winning the ITA National Indoor Championships, which was staking its spot as a competitor in the event after winning both its matches during the ITA Kickoff Weekend at the Clemson Indoor Tennis Center on Saturday and Sunday.
But before the Tigers can racket up for the tournament, a top-15 match with the University of Georgia looms to open the month of February.
“We’ve always had great battles with Georgia,” Clemson head coach Nancy Harris said. “It’s sort of a cross-state rivalry, and that’s a big match for us, and we’re going to have to play well in order to beat Georgia.”
The Bulldogs, of course, eliminated Clemson in the Sweet 16 of last season’s NCAA Championships, 4-2, after the Tigers had taken a 2-0 lead by winning the doubles point and then getting a straight-set victory from Yana Koroleva at No. 1 singles.
With that, Clemson comes into the match motivated to earn redemption against the Bulldogs.
“If we play as well as we played today, we’ll certainly have an opportunity,” Harris said. “But we’re going to play it how we played today — one point at a time.”
A day after sweeping 56th-ranked Fresno State, No. 13 Clemson beat No. 32 Tennessee 4-0 in the second round of the ITA Kickoff Weekend to earn its spot at one of 16 teams to compete in the national tournament in Charlottesville, Va., on Feb. 7-10.
“We knew Tennessee would be very good,” Harris said. “In fact, of all the teams in the tournament, we weren’t sure who was going to come through. We thought Fresno played us really well.
“I’m just real proud of the girls — they played hard, they fought hard, they knew what they wanted to do and they went out and they accomplished those things, and I was just real proud of us.”
Clemson’s highest-ranked singles player, Beatrice Gumulya, and Koroleva won both their singles matches over the weekend to catapult the Tigers to their seventh National Indoor Championships appearance in the last eight years.
Romy Koelzer and Tristen Dewar added singles victories on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, while six other matches ended unfinished during matches in which Clemson did not surrender a point to the Bulldogs and Volunteers.
“We’ve always been fortunate to have an incredible staff and great student-athletes, and I think it’s exciting for us to be able to go back, and I’m particularly excited to go back with this team,” Harris said. “They’re still very, very young, and we’re doing some things I want to do even better than where we are, so I’m real delighted to have this opportunity.”
Now the Tigers must halt celebration and initiate calibration leading up to their match with a currently third-ranked Georgia squad in a meeting of two teams that are undefeated with a combined 6-0 record.
Clemson hits the road for the first time as a team all season and stays on it until its next home match versus Harvard on Feb. 21, but Harris sees the upcoming string of three straight road contests as a chance for the Tigers to tighten up an already firm team bond.
“Even though this team is close and well bonded, it brings them even closer, and so I always think of matches on the road as opportunities for the team to get closer,” Harris said. “We’ve always played pretty well on the road. On the road, you have generally less distractions, and I think it’s good for the team.”
The Bulldogs’ two opponents thus far average a ranking of 63 according to the ITA Team Rankings, while Clemson’s two qualifying foes—Troy and Charleston Southern are ranked outside the top 75— average a ranking of 44.
Therefore, in both teams’ first time facing elite competition on the young season, the always-prevalent doubles point will become even more crucial at noon on Feb. 1 in Athens.
Neither team has dropped a doubles point this season en route to a combined 27-1 thrashing of six opponents in the early going.
“After last tear, it’s delightful. Last year, I just wanted to go straight to the singles and skip the doubles,” Harris said. “This year, I look forward to the doubles, but we’re still not where we need to be. Both in singles and doubles, I think we have a lot of room for improvement, and I look forward to getting there.”