The 2011 women’s tennis team is a testament to the program that Nancy Harris has built in her first 13 seasons. As she enters her 14th, the idea that “tradition doesn’t graduate” holds strong. Fresh off a 24-6 season in which they advanced to the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight season and sixth in the last seven, the Tigers are in prime shape to again threaten for the ACC and NCAA Championships.
“Those traditions have been passed down from previous juniors and seniors because that’s how they were treated as freshmen and sophomores,” said Head Coach Nancy Harris, who is 217-118 in her career at Clemson. “After you’ve had a program that’s been successful for a long time, those are the benefits of successful programs, and that they pass that down for generations.”
Clemson opens the season as the 11th-ranked team nationally according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, as they return five of their top six players from last season’s team, and add two strong freshmen, who can contribute immediately.
“This team is different in that they are still very young to me,” says Harris of her team. “I think they have so many more levels of ability and performance. A lot will depend on how coachable they are. Many of them are stubborn, but that is a quality of a great champion. I’ve never met a champion that wasn’t stubborn. But you have to be stubborn about the right things. If they waste that on things that are not important, it will be more difficult to reach their goals.”
Back are All-ACC selections Laurianne Henry, one of the most clutch players in school history, returns as the only senior, and sophomore Caroline Magnusson is ready to contribute after a strong freshman campaign.
Freshmen Maria Belaya each played well enough in the fall to garner preseason regional top-20 ranks.
“Klara is a player that I think over the next four years has a future in pro tennis,” said Harris. “She can do a lot with the ball. For me, the bigger the player, the more patterns they can run, and what makes her so scary is she has so many patterns. She’s always got a smile on her face, and she’s such and excellent student.”
“Masha’s got it all,” said Harris. “She’s got a motor that runs in the tenth gear all the time, and her challenge is going to be gearing back at the right time, and improving her defense. She is absolutely fearless, and she’s going to contribute in singles and doubles.”
Gone are 2010 seniors Ina Hadziselimovic and Estefania Balda, both significant contributors. Hadziselimovic left Clemson as a two-time doubles All-American, 2010 All-ACC selection, and the winningest doubles player in school history. Balda was ranked in the first three of her four seasons, and won more than 130 singles (62) and doubles (69) matches in her career.
Hadziselimovic played primarily at number-3 singles and the top doubles slot last season, while Balda was used mostly at the number-six singles spot and number-three doubles position.
Their departures open the door for young stars like Ciolkowski, who won 29 matches in her freshman season. Henry is also ready to become the team leader, and has won numerous big-time matches to solidify her status as a dependable starter.
But the backbone of the team lies at the top in the junior class, with Bek and Wong. Bek enters the 2011 season off an extremely strong fall, in which she went 9-4, won the flight one Furman Fall Invite, and advanced to the finals of the ITA Carolina Singles Championship.
Bek has become known throughout the nation as one of the most emotional players nationally, and her combination of daring and skillful tennis is incredibly captivating to watch. She enters the season ranked as the 12th-best singles player nationally, and the No. 2 in the Carolina Region. She will help Clemson immensely at the number-one position. She spent a lot of time growing into the position as a sophomore, and has learned what to expect playing the opponent’s top player every match.
She is the type of player that a team needs to change match momentum, and doesn’t mind playing grind-it-out tennis if she needs to, but prefers to play at a frenetic pace. When she isn’t able to overpower her opponent, she is often able to vary her shots to tire her opponent out, which is evidenced by a 21-6 career record in three-set matches.
With Bek, Wong gives Clemson a terrifying 1-2 punch at the top of the lineup, and is a totally different player from Bek. While Bek is a vocal, and often boisterous player, Wong rarely yells or shows emotion, as she quietly calculates where she can take her advantage.
A veteran of several key matches, Wong is skilled enough to play in the top spot, and can challenge most other players to the edge in every match. She won 26 matches in each of her first two seasons, playing primarily in the top half of the lineup.
As potent as Wong and Bek are at the top of the singles lineup, it may be their doubles prowess that is most exciting. The duo are ranked second nationally after unquestionably the best fall that any Clemson doubles team has ever had. The Tiger juniors went 13-4 together, and advanced to the finals of two major national tournaments, the ITA All-American and the ITA National Indoor Championships, and claimed the ITA Carolina Region doubles title. They defeated six ranked teams, including the nation’s number-one team.
“I saw Keri and Jo so much as freshmen, and thought that they could be great together,” recalls Harris. “But the timing of their maturity as individuals didn’t allow it, and the chemistry wasn’t right, and that is so important.”
This puts them in prime position to be able to be a legitimate competitor for the NCAA Championships in May. No Clemson tennis player has ever won an NCAA Championship in singles or doubles, but Clemson could have its’ top threat thus far.
Behind Wong and Bek, Harris has several options in the doubles lineup. Henry came on strong at the end of 2010, and Belaya, Vyskocilova, and Magnusson have shown great promise. The key will be getting meaningful experience early on, with an incredibly tough schedule ahead.
The Atlantic Coast Conference is already one of the nation’s premier tennis conferences, with seven squads ranked among the nation’s top-25 teams. Additionally, the Tigers will host the first two rounds of the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, a 64-team national championship held on campus for the first two rounds, and then in Charlottesville, VA for the round of 16 and on.
Nationally ranked Vanderbilt (#26) and Marshall (#53) teams are in Clemson’s draw for the tournament, and Clemson has dual matches with Georgia (#15), Baylor (#3), South Carolina (#21), and South Florida (#28), in addition to the six other ACC ranked teams.
“What makes the schedule so challenging is the order in which they fall,” said Harris. “This schedule is preparing them for the National Championship. Our players will have to do a great job of moving on to get ready for the next battle. That is going to help take them to the next level, because they are one right after another. You’ve got all these variables, in youth, tough schedule, and all of that could really pay off. We will have matured them really quickly and given them a tough mountain top climb.”
Clemson will have the advantage of playing its first 12 dual matches at home, and have 17 home events scheduled, which ties for the most in school history. Clemson will also play two doubleheaders at the beginning of the season leading up to the first two round of the Indoor Championships.
Harris’ team seems poised to do great things, and new staff addition Scott Kidd has been relentless on the recruiting trail, and has one of the top reputations for player development. He came from Harris’ former program, Auburn University – Montgomery, where he coached the women’s program to five national championships in six seasons, and then men to the 2010 title in only his second season.
The returning experience, talent, coaching mixed with the ongoing facilities upgrades have Clemson on the map as one to watch for the next several seasons. In addition to the recently completed Duckworth Pavilion, the team has enjoyed newly surfaced outdoor courts, is undergoing an office redesign, and is preparing for the addition of two new indoor courts, to bring the total to six.
This season should be an exciting one for Clemson fans, who are encouraged to attend all regular season home events, free of charge. Some of the best college tennis in the nation will be in the northwest corner of South Carolina.
“I think this team is going to be unpredictable in how well they are going to perform. I’m always optimistic, and cautiously so with a young team, but I feel like if they play one point at a time and build momentum, they have a chance to be great. Coach and I will do everything we can to have them as well prepared as possible.”
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