After losing to Ohio State on Friday, it was a must-win match for the IU women’s tennis team on Sunday against Penn State.
The Hoosiers and Nittany Lions were tied for tenth place in the Big Ten standings coming into the match. The top ten teams qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament.
Despite the high stakes, IU Coach Ramiro Azcui took a risk by switching up his doubles teams.
At the No. 1 spot, he teamed up junior Madison Appel and freshman Jelly Bozovic, who had teamed up just four times prior to this. In the second spot was sophomore Caitlin Bernard and freshman Michelle McKamey, a duo that has yet to play together this season. The No. 3 spot was junior Natalie Whalen and senior Xiwei Cai, who teamed up in the fall but not yet in the spring season.
At first, it looked as if this decision might have been a mistake as the No. 2 and 3 spots both found themselves trailing 3-1. But, before the match, Azcui said he told his team it was all about emotion.
The Hoosiers found that emotion, channeled it and started to take the momentum back.
Whalen and Cai rallied off five-straight games to win their match 6-3. Now, the Hoosiers just needed one more to gain the first point of the match.
On the next court over, Bernard and McKamey were doing the same. They battled to take a 4-3 lead and, a few volleys later, it was tied at five.
Appel and Bozovic were also tied at five on court one. The two began to play an aggressive style where both of them were up at the net. It worked out well as they won the match 7-5, winning the doubles match and going up 1-0 in the match.
“Me and Madison are a great doubles team I feel like,” Bozovic said. “Ramiro really emphasizes how I attack the net and he wants to be really aggressive. Madison sets me up pretty well, so it works really well.”
Since the Hoosiers already took the doubles point, Bernard and McKamey’s match went unfinished.
It was then on to the singles where Whalen made the quickest work, defeating her opponent 6-3, 6-2, and the Hoosiers were up 2-0.
The comfortable lead did not stick for long.
The five remaining singles matches all went to the third set. As much as Azcui said this match was about emotion, there were times where the team’s emotion was frustration.
Bernard and Bozovic both had moments where yells of frustration were heard all throughout the IU Tennis Center.
“This match was very exhausting,” Bozovic said. “The girl I played was really good. She made every single ball, made me move, I had to resort to coming to the net which I never do. There were times where I was screaming and yelling but it’s important for me to bounce back from those things and continue on with my game.”
Bozovic used the words "mental focus" a lot to describe the composure needed to stay in a three-set match.
Cai had the easiest time in her third set as she won 6-0 and put the Hoosiers up 3-1 in the match. Penn State’s first point came from a victory over IU freshmen Olga Zavarotnaya in the No. 6 singles spot.
Cai’s win was followed by Bozovic’s which clinched the match for the Hoosiers, 4-1, while Bernard and Appel still played in their third sets.
Bernard eventually got the win, but Appel’s match was finished by retirement.
In Appel’s first set, she needed IU athletic trainer MacKenzie Meyer to come over to her during a break and work on her lower back. In the second set, Appel lunged for a ball that she could not get to and immediately grabbed her back afterwards. As the match went longer, the grimace on Appel’s face grew more immense from the pain. Azcui had to force her to stop playing, making the final score 5-2.
“She found a way to stay in the match and to battle through,” Azcui said on Appel. “That’s the sign of a leader. She’s going to give it all she has.”
Appel’s health will be a priority going forward, but so will the team’s last two games of the season. IU will play Maryland and Rutgers next weekend, while also keeping an eye on Iowa versus Wisconsin, a match that affects its Big Ten Tournament berth.
“To have three wins now in the Big Ten gives us a lot of confidence,” Azcui said. “We have a lot more breathing room going into the last two matches.”
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