The Big Ten Women’s Tennis Tournament is this weekend, and the Illini look poised to make a run to the title. Coming off the third-best regular season in program history, Head Coach Evan Clark will look to his squad to continue its winning ways.
Entering the Big Ten Tournament at 20-4, the Illini have taken care of business on the court. Led by Sasha Belaya and Mia Rabinowitz, Illinois sits at No. 15 nationally after peaking at No. 5 as late as March. Belaya and Rabinowitz are a big part of the Illini’s success, as the freshmen phenoms sit at a combined 33-6 on the season.
There are a few potential pitfalls for the Illini, however. The first concern is that their first-round matchup comes against Nebraska, a team they have not played in 2018. Entering a tournament, there is a benefit to knowing an opponent’s style and what to expect from them. In this case, the Illini will not be so lucky. Essentially, they will be coming in to this matchup blind and will need to rely on only their talents and abilities.
The other red flag the Illini have coming into this tournament is their potential second-round matchup, the Michigan Wolverines. In their last meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan took down the Illini 4-0 to snap a six-match winning streak. The best case would be for the Wolverines to falter in their opening match and open up the road for the Illini.
Illinois will need to rely on the play of Emilee Duong, Daniela Novak and Jaclyn Switkes to come up big in order to advance throughout the week. If Duong can continue her hot play — she’s 7-1 in her last 8 decisions — the Illini may have their third victory locked up throughout matchups.
When examining potential championship matchups, should the Illini get that far, the most likely opponents would be either Northwestern (Loss, 4-3), Ohio State (Loss, 4-3), or Purdue (Win, 6-1). When you look at its regular season matchups, Illinois can legitimately say they have a chance against any of the three. If the Illini can get past Michigan, my money is on an Illinois Big Ten Championship.
Realistically, the Illini have had one of the best seasons since the 1980s, so the result of this week should not weigh on how they feel. I do think that Illinois has a chance to take a championship this week, but there will need to be some things that fall their way.
I expect a win over Nebraska and if the Illini get past Michigan, it is all bets off. Potentially, their toughest matchup may be their second match, not the potential championship. Win Saturday, and the title is the Illini’s to lose.