*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a 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 – In the University Athletic Association women's tennis record books, the same name appears again and again. Since the start of conference play in 1987, Emory University has dominated both within the UAA and on the national scene. The Eagles have won 30 out of 32 UAA titles, and have captured seven NCAA team national championships during that time.
So when a youthful University of Chicago squad advanced to the 2019 UAA championship match, the No. 1-ranked Eagles had plenty of history on their side. But once the players hit the courts, none of that mattered. The Maroons fought tooth-and-nail throughout and put Emory on the ropes before ultimately falling by the narrowest of margins, 5-4.
The 2019 Maroons squad boasted one of the youngest rosters in program history – the eight-player active roster featured five first-years and two sophomores. Despite the inexperience, UChicago proved its mettle all year. The team played 16 nationally-ranked opponents over the course of the year and came into April's UAA tournament ranked No. 12 in the country.
Head Coach Jay Tee knew the challenge his players were in for, but he wanted them to remain confident in their abilities.
"Before the tournament started, I told the team the story of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II," Tee said. "A group of young, inexperienced soldiers were tasked with taking three mountain tops in Italy versus overwhelming odds. I told them that this tournament was going to be a tough battle, but that if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, we'd all meet together at the top at the end. I certainly wasn't comparing tennis in Florida with war, but rather that if we all stay connected and focused on the objective, we can achieve things that no one thought possible."
The eight-team conference tournament would unfold over three days down in Altamonte Springs, Florida. The eventual winner would receive an automatic bid into the upcoming NCAA Division III Championship field.
As the No. 3 seed, the Maroons came out firing in the opening days. They swept through rival Washington University – St. Louis by a 5-0 score, then repeated that feat with a 5-0 shutout of Brandeis University. The strong doubles showing and depth throughout the singles lineup shone through. Next up, Emory awaited in the title match.
The building momentum from those results convinced the Maroons that they were peaking at the right time of the season. "The victories were incredibly important to us, especially as a young team," said Tee. "I think they were always very confident in their abilities, but then as we began to beat some very good teams, I could see them actually start to view themselves as championship contenders and start to believe that they could go toe-to-toe with anyone on any given day. The team had been through so much in the previous few days and months – it was extremely gratifying to see their dedication and hard work pay off."
Once doubles play got underway, Emory drew ahead with a win at the No. 2 position. But the No. 3 combo of Lauren Park and Nicole Semenov rallied back to prevail 8-6 to draw UChicago even at 1-1. In a pivotal match at No. 1, the Eagles held strong down the stretch to come out ahead, 8-6.
The Maroons remained undeterred. Semenov rolled over her singles opponent at the No. 5 spot with a one-sided 6-0, 6-1 triumph. The Eagles answered in kind at No. 1 and No. 2 to put themselves on the precipice of the team win at 4-2. UChicago's Annika Pandey split her first two sets at No. 6 and led in the third when her opponent retired (6-2, 4-6, 3-2), drawing the Maroons closer at 4-3. After losing her first set 6-4, Park imposed her will at the No. 3 spot by grabbing the next two sets 6-2, 6-3. Just like that, the match was tied.
"Our goal heading into the match was just to keep it close," Tee said. "Emory was ranked No. 1 in the country and had been blowing people out all year long. We thought that if we could just put them in some uncomfortable positions that they weren't used to that maybe we could sneak out the win."
It all came down to No. 4 as Maroon rookie Eugenia Lee took on Emory's Jessica Fatemi. Lee grabbed the first set tiebreak 7-6 (7-4); however, Fatemi turned the tables 6-2 in the second. The deciding third set went down to the wire, with the Eagles escaping with the 6-4 win.
"There were so many inspiring moments that come to mind that it's hard to pick just one," said Tee. "Nicole and Lauren overcoming a huge deficit at No. 3 doubles, Lauren and Annika both winning third sets in the blazing heat and humidity, and Eugenia battling her heart out as the last match on the court. I remember starting to get emotional watching her play at 3-3 in the third set and thinking about how special this group is, no matter what happened the rest of the day."
Despite the loss, the Maroons proved plenty on that hot April afternoon in Florida – they could go toe-to-toe with the best in the nation. Two weeks later, UChicago was back in the postseason and advanced to the NCAA Quarterfinals for the fourth-straight year. The squad concluded the season with a 16-6 record and a No. 8 national ranking.
"The loss [at UAAs] hurt, no question, but I think it went a long way towards us developing a championship mentality and helped us bond as a team in a way we hadn't in the past," Tee said. "They all went to battle together and even though we fell a few points short, I think we came out the other side an even stronger and more motivated team."