CHICAGO – With the competitive season quickly approaching, the University of Chicago men's and women's tennis teams share numerous characteristics. Last year, both squads extended their streaks of deep runs into the NCAA postseason. They successfully integrated new players into their starting lineup who proved critical in victories over some of the nation's best. Their slate of opponents featured a combined 32 nationally-ranked teams.
The chase for a national title continues as the Maroons gear up for all the new challenges that 2019-20 will bring.
The rise of UChicago's men on the national scene has been meteoric. After only winning one NCAA postseason match prior to 2015, the Maroons reached the NCAA semifinals four times in the past five years. Last season, UChicago posted a 20-3 record and also captured the ITA indoor title for the first time ever.
The success the Maroons have enjoyed gives them belief that they can compete with any team in the country. But head coach Jay Tee, now entering his eighth season, wants his players to not take it for granted – they must earn it every time on the court.
"Finding success in the previous season doesn't guarantee anything in the current season," Tee said. "We can use those past positive moments to give us confidence in our abilities, but we need to start each year with a renewed focus and hunger. Even though the last five years have been the program's best since our days in the Big Ten, we are still learning how to win and are still building a championship culture. Many of the other top teams have been contending for NCAA championships for 30+ years and are used to those expectations while this is still somewhat new to us."
UChicago graduated three players from last year's team, including four-year starter Charlie Pei (149 singles/doubles wins). The 2019-20 roster boasts plenty of experience with four seniors, three juniors and five sophomores. Five first-years will join the fray this fall. Returning All-Americans include seniors Erik Kerrigan, Ninan Kumar and Tyler Raclin along with junior Jeremy Yuan. Tee believes the leadership on this team is its biggest strength.
Doubles featured three nationally-elite duos that could consistently sweep opponents and stake the team to sizable leads. The Maroons were victorious in 74 percent of their doubles matches last year, with the top three tandems winning at least 21 matches each.
"Our doubles have really come around in the past few years largely to some very skilled doubles players and partly to a much better attitude towards it," said the veteran head coach. "When I first began, we were very much a singles team and our mentality was pretty much 'let's just not get swept.' Now when we go into a match, we're thinking 'let's go get a 3-0 lead and shut the door quick.' Much of the attitude is the time and energy we dedicate to doubles in practice. We try to teach the team the fundamentals and then let them still play their own game within system, which has been largely effective."
The Maroons will challenge themselves with a schedule full of elite opposition once again. Tee believes the constant stream of nationally-ranked foes is important to battle test his squad in advance of the postseason.
"Each year we try to go out and play the best teams we can find, and this year might be our toughest schedule to date," he said. "After looking back at the way our past few seasons have ended, it's apparent to me that we need to play more matches overall and to play those matches in a 3-4 day span. ITA Indoors, the UAA Championship and the NCAA Tournament all require you to win three matches in three days. So it's something that we need to see more of during the season in order to prepare ourselves for that test."
If there is one aspect that Tee wants to see his men improve upon to reach their potential, it's consistency.
"We want to be more consistent in the way we compete, the way we practice, and in our mindset," said Tee. "In order to win a championship, we have to be consistent in our approach for three-straight days. It's important that we train with that in mind during the season so that we're not trying to do things differently under pressure. I think the guys get tired of me telling them that they need to respect each opponent and that they've got to bring their best but it's true. If we compete as hard as we can at every practice and during every match, then we won't have to change anything during our biggest matches."
UChicago's women have cemented themselves as mainstays in the upper echelon of NCAA Division III tennis over the past decade. The Maroons have earned 11-straight selections to the NCAA tournament, including a current streak of four-straight quarterfinals appearances. The squad posted a 16-6 record last year and took second at the UAA championship.
One of the driving forces of this current run is Marjorie Antohi. The senior has been a rock at the top of the lineup throughout her career, winning a combined 121 matches and achieving All-American status in both singles and doubles.
"Marjorie has been outstanding for us," Tee said. "What makes her so darn good is the way she competes for every single point and never gives in to her opponent. Marjorie might not always play her best but what sets her apart is her ability to win even when she doesn't have her 'A' game. That tenacity and problem-solving ability is a great example to the rest of the team and a pleasure to witness as a coach."
This season's squad is comprised of one senior, two juniors, five sophomores and five first-years. Last year's rookies were crucial to UChicago's accomplishments. The players were thrown into the fire right away and acclimatized to the top-tier of Division III. All told, they combined to go 67-21 in singles and 47-22 in doubles.
"There's no question that last year's first-year class was a huge part of our success on the court, but in my mind their biggest contribution was the energy and attitude that they brought to practice each and every day," said Tee. "They were a really fun group who injected the program with a sense of joy and confidence. It was a pleasure going to practice each day and knowing that I was walking into a group that was positive (even at 6:30 AM), motivated to improve, and also just genuinely liked being around each other."
One of last year's key matches came in the UAA championship when the Maroons took on top-ranked Emory University. UChicago pushed the Eagles all the way to the edge before falling 5-4. Tee hopes those kinds of close results against the nation's best will allow the team to build up its winning mentality going forward.
"The one thing this group has never lacked is confidence in themselves," he said. "This is a group that's accustomed to individual success throughout their junior careers and is just starting to understand the power of the team and what it means to play for the person next to you and for the University of Chicago. I believe that last season we just started to see what we are capable of and this season we will take another step forward in our growth as individuals and as a team."
Along with Antohi in singles (20 wins), UChicago qualified the doubles team of Catherine Xu and Eugenia Lee for the NCAA individual championships. The leaders in singles wins last year also included Nicole Semenov (19), Annika Pandey (18) and Xu (16).
Tee identified several attributes that will help the Maroons excel in the coming year. "This team's biggest strengths are definitely our attitude, energy, self-belief and cohesion," he said. "Those qualities, along with talent and athleticism at every position, makes me believe that we're going to have an outstanding season and hopefully prove some people wrong."
There are also areas of growth that the UChicago head coach would like to see his players take on as points of emphasis.
"For us, I think we need to continue to gain confidence in our doubles abilities and to trust ourselves in the big moments," Tee said. "There were a few times last year where the match was on our racket, but we weren't able to finish them out on our terms as often as we'd like. I think that as we gain a little more experience and learn how to handle pressure moments, you'll see us start winning those close ones and creating a little more separation between us and other teams."