Today, heartbreak set in for the Illini Women’s Tennis program as sophomore phenom Asuka Kawai was finally ousted in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals by top-ranked Estela Perez-Somarriba from Miami in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4. Perez-Somarriba is the No. 1 player in the country, so being able to hang with her is impressive in its own right. For Asuka, however, it may have been a coming-out party.
This past week, Kawai made history for the Fighting Illini, even if you didn’t hear about it. Down in Orlando, Florida, Kawai became the first Illini woman to ever reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament in singles. The now All-American, the first for the Illini in singles since 1933, advanced after being down five sets to one. Being down 5-1 and coming back to win is pretty much the equivalent of being down double digits with under a minute to go and winning a basketball game. Remember the Illinois-Arizona game in 2005? Yeah, about that unlikely. Sure, it worked out for our side in the end, but none of us truly thought it was possible. Don’t lie and say you did.
The comeback, however, is not what is most impressive about Asuka Kawai. Sure, it’s impressive, but the real talent lies in how she carries herself. I was able to watch part of the Sweet Sixteen matchup. Even under the bright lights, down by four sets, Kawai never flinched. Her tenacity, her drive, her focus; they never faltered. She was a leader on this team even when she was by herself on the court.
The loss on Thursday is no different. Even in defeat, Kawai showed her potential on the NCAA stage. In the first set, she held a tie at 3-3 before falling 6-4. In the second set, Kawai held a 3-2 advantage. Understandably, against one of the best in the world, Asuka came up short, through no fault of her own. Sometimes even the best of us run up against someone better. That is what builds drive and determination to come back better.
For now, Asuka Kawai will go back to training, bracing herself for next season. The leaps she made from her freshman to sophomore seasons at Illinois can not be expressed enough. This season, Kawai was an All-American, she was an unanimous All-Big Ten selection, she was a two-time Big Ten Player of the Week, nine wins over nationally ranked opponents, and was named team MVP by her peers. All this. In year two.
I have a feeling she will only improve as time goes on. I truly believe that when all is said and done, Kawai will be a champion. As a sophomore, she is already one of the best in the country. In the next two years, she will likely be at the top.
Asuka — from all of us at The Champaign Room — we are proud of the work you and the rest of the Illini Women accomplished this season. We look forward to cheering you on next year!