*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a new story series throughout the spring and summer called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – When Head Tennis Coach Jay Tee began preparing for the start of the fall portion of his 2019-20 season, he wasn't concentrating on what his lineup would look like or which opponents were on his schedule. Instead, he was singularly focused on one aspect: team cohesion.
"All of my focus was on creating a strong bond between the incoming players, the returners and the coaches," Tee said. "We put a huge emphasis on developing relationships away from the court with the expectation that it would lead to even better results once we started playing matches. We also wanted to build the players' confidence and encourage them to find the joy in tennis and each other."
That approach produced dividends right away, as the University of Chicago women's tennis team dominated the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Central Region Championships in September 2019. The three-day tournament saw the Maroons sweep the ITA regional singles and doubles titles for the first time since 2011.
UChicago entered the season with a 13-player roster that included one senior, two juniors, five sophomores and five first-years. The Maroons utilized their talented young squad in 2018-19 to reach their fourth-straight NCAA Quarterfinal, and had designs to better that placing in 2019-20. Last year's rookies were significant contributors right out of the gate, posting combined records of 67-21 in singles and 47-22 in doubles.
The first big test of the year would be the ITA Regionals, hosted by Kalamazoo College from September 19-21. The three-day tournament would feature a 64-player singles bracket and a 32-pairing doubles bracket. UChicago has typically used the major tournament as a launching point for successful campaigns. Coming into the weekend action, the Maroons had captured eight singles titles and four doubles titles over the previous 11 years.
The brackets featured five Maroons playing singles along with three doubles teams. Right out of the gate, UChicago flexed its collective muscle on day one by going 8-2 in singles and 3-0 in doubles. Ten of the 11 victories saw opponents collect a mere three games or fewer. That opening day of dominance was almost undone by a scheduling quirk, however.
"I wasn't surprised by their success because I knew we had a ton of really talented players who were capable of winning a lot of matches," Tee said. "I was surprised that we had such a good day one because we almost missed the tournament entirely and didn't arrive in Kalamazoo until midnight with matches starting the next day at 9:00 AM. I incorrectly assumed that the tournament was once again Friday-Sunday when in actuality it was Thursday-Saturday. I was fortunate that I had a great group of women that had my back and didn't let it affect them (after they gave me a 'Bronx cheer' when I showed up to the van that night)."
On day two, the singles trio of junior Catherine Xu, sophomore Lauren Park and sophomore Nicole Semenov combined to go 6-0 as all three advanced to the semifinals. Additionally, the rookie doubles duo of Perene Wang and Claudia Ng cruised along to reach the quarterfinals.
Day three featured inter-squad action as Park faced off with Xu in the semis. Park held on to win a tight match 6-3, 6-7, 6-4. On the opposite side of the draw, Semenov took down the No. 1-seed from Kenyon College, who retired from the match due to injury while trailing 6-0, 1-0.
Ng and Wang continued their domination by topping the No. 2 seeds from Hope College (8-3), then winning the doubles title over the No. 3 seeds from Kenyon (6-4, 6-3).
Since UChicago possessed both singles finalists, Tee decided the championship match would be played on Monday morning on the Stagg Tennis Courts in Hyde Park. Park emerged with the straight-sets victory over her classmate Semenov to complete her perfect 6-0 run.
The final tally saw a group record of 17-4 in singles, with two of those losses coming from fellow teammates. Doubles featured a 9-2 combined mark.
"There were so many great individual performances, but what stands out most is just how physically and mentally tough everyone was throughout the weekend," Tee said. "There were so many matches where it would have been easy for them to pack it up and give in, but each time it looked like that might happen, they responded by digging deeper and finding a little extra."
The performance at regionals helped kick start a season that saw the No. 8-ranked Maroons compile an 8-1 team record during their abbreviated action. At the national ITA Cup, Park reached the singles semifinals while Wang and Ng advanced to the doubles quarterfinals. Park finished the season topping the squad with a 17-4 singles mark, while Ng and Wang went 19-2 in doubles.
"The results from regionals showed that we were had the pieces to be a darn good team and second, and most importantly, I think it showed them what it means to compete as a team and to genuinely enjoy being together," said Tee. "The team dynamic and culture that they developed during the fall was a turning point for our program and made everyone feel connected, motivated and excited for the rest of the year."