Previewing Rice women's tennis against UH with the Daily Cougar
On Friday afternoon, Rice women’s tennis takes on University of Houston Women’s Tennis at the John E. Hoff Courts. Rice Thresher Assistant Sports Editor Madison Buzzard and Daily Cougar Assistant Sports Editor Trenton Whiting came together to preview the matchup.
- Who’s playing the best on your school’s team?
Buzzard: Rice freshman Anastasia Smirnova, who was recruited to Rice this season with her twin sister Victoria Smirnova from Nevilles, Belgium, has spent all season at number three singles, according to head coach Elizabeth Schmidt. Earlier this season, she rattled off five singles wins in a row; during that time she was named the Conference USA Female Athlete of the Week. Smirnova strikes aggressively with solid groundstrokes to complement a deft net touch to overpower her opponents. Currently, Smirnova is on a three-match winning streak in singles. Impressively, she has conceded only eight games during those three straight-sets victories.
Whiting: There are many players that are playing well for the team, but freshman Stephanie Belovukovic has been on fire basically all season. She has 15 wins and only two losses. While in France, Belovukovic played herself to No. 90 in the world for under 14-year-old players. It is no surprise that she has found success at the collegiate level. She has been one of the most
effective singles players on the team. UH does not necessarily need her to take over to succeed, but her production will be one of the deciding factors in this match.
- Who are the best doubles pairings on your school’s team?
Buzzard: Doubles has been a strength for Rice all season. Schmidt has emphasized that when the Owls can begin a match with a sense of urgency and take the doubles point, there is less stress on her team. For Rice to thrive in doubles against UH, Schmidt should rely upon her staple pairings: sophomore Michaela Haet and sophomore Linda Huang at number one doubles, Anastasia Smirnova and sophomore Priya Niezgoda at number two doubles and Victoria Smirnova and Anna Bowtell at number three doubles. In singles, Rice’s number one, two and three spots are well established with Michaela Haet, Victoria Smirnova and Anastasia Smirnova filling those roles. As for the four through six spots, starting Priya Niezgoda and Anna Bowtell are a must. But I recommend benching Daia El Jardi in favor of the lone senior on the squad, Fernanda Astete, for this final regular season match. Say Bowtell at four, Niezgoda at five and Astete at six.
Whiting: The ideal doubles lineup should include junior Phonexay Chitdara and freshman Sophie Gerits. Both of them are new additions to the team, but that did not stop them from making their presence felt early. The Belgian duo only took one loss the whole season, and started the season on a winning streak that did not end until late February. Each player is individually effective, and when they are together their strengths are multiplied. They were paired with other players to end the season, but the Belgian connection should continue against Rice and into the postseason. UH’s doubles game has been solid all season, so expect the other pairings to be effective as well.
- What do you think your school’s team has to accomplish this weekend as the postseason approaches?
Buzzard: Five of Rice’s six losses this season have come against top 50 opponents. These defeats have demonstrated Rice’s lack of experience: of the six Owls who have played singles most frequently this season, five of them are either freshman or sophomores. Last season, when Rice won the Conference USA tournament, it played three seniors. Its number one doubles team, the senior pair of Lindsey Hodge and Wendy Zhang, was nationally ranked. For the Owls to capture their fifth C-USA title in six seasons, the sophomore duo of Huang and Haet must lead the way, and it starts with capturing a win against the Cougars.
Whiting: I need to see the team continue its steady production through every match. This season has been a building process as many of the players and even the coach is new to the program. The match against Rice is another chance for the team to get better, win or lose. At this point, experience is the most important factor for the team. With three freshmen on the team any amount of extra time on the court against other opponents will benefit the team in the long run.
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