The Illinois Women’s Tennis team has had an improbable season. After posting the second-most wins in program history (21), seeing its best national ranking in program history (#5), and first win over a Top-20 program since 2012 (Texas, #11), the Illini women look like a team that could make some noise in Lubbock, Texas.
The road to the quarterfinals, however, leaves the Illini a razor thin margin of error. The Illini will face off Friday against a 19-3 Princeton team that defeated then-#12 Auburn, 4-2, and ran like a buzzsaw through Big Ten opponents, going 4-0 in those matchups.
In regards to the Princeton roster, one name that sticks out is Nathalie Rodilosso. The freshman is currently riding a seven-game winning streak after starting the season 11-6. The Illini are no stranger to strong freshman play, but will need to throw one of their best at Rodilosso to ensure the point is not lost.
Both Princeton and Illinois hover in the 63-68% win rate on the doubles court, so you can likely consider this matchup a toss up. That is not to slight the importance of the doubles points, but the doubles matchups can be hard to predict when both teams are evenly matched. Where the Illini will shine, however, may very well be on the singles courts.
Freshman phenom Mia Rabinowitz continues to turn heads in the NCAA’s after starting her season on a 20-4 tear. Her current thirteen match win streak is one of the best streaks in the country and shows that the Illini may be set up for sustained success for the future.
However, even with the impressive freshmen on this team (Rabinowitz, Sasha Belaya, Emilee Duong, and Asuka Kawai), the Illini’s success has been built by the senior leadership on this squad. Grace Tapak is 5-3 on the year in singles matches, but more impressively, her doubles teams are undefeated at 4-0. Tapak, along with Jade Hilton, may not play as many matches as some, but their leadership speaks volumes.
The second matchup for the Illini women, should they take down Princeton, will feature either host team Texas Tech or Army West Point. Both teams sit at 20-plus wins this season, while the Red Raiders are the heavy favorite as an #11 seed.
Should the Illini advance to the quarterfinals, enough can not be said of Big Ten Coach of the Year Evan Clark. In only his second season as the official Head Coach of the Illini, Clark has seen the rise of a program that he has helped sculpt since 2014. The Illini are a program on the rise, and Clark is one of the main reasons.
My prediction is that the Illini take a first-round victory against Princeton, 4-2, but then ultimately fall to the Red Raiders, 4-3, in a close, tight matchup.