EXCLUSIVE: Tigers Canít Capitalize on Korolevaís Dazzling Day
By: Steven Bradley, IPTAY Media
URBANA, IL - Clemson may not have advanced beyond the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships this year, but the Tigers certainly proved they are plenty capable of competing with the big dogs on the national stage in their 4-2 loss Friday to Georgia.
No player made a stronger statement in that regard than sophomore Yana Koroleva, who teamed with classmate Beatrice Gumulya to beat the nation’s No. 1 doubles duo of Kate Fuller and Silvia Garcia, 8-3, and followed that up by dominating the nation’s sixth-ranked player, Lauren Herring, in straight sets, 6-2, 6-0, to stake the Tigers to a 2-0 lead at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
“It was good,” Koroleva said of her performance. “I didn’t know if I’d even be able to play two days ago because I had a (sore back), and now it feels great to be back on the court and perform at a good level.”
The 6-foot-tall Russian certainly didn’t look anything less than 100 percent, but said her strategy was to focus intensely on every point in an effort to finish the matches as quickly as possible and avoid her injury concerns cropping up again.
“My hats off to Yana because she has that ability to take a game plan and just execute it,” Tigers head coach Nancy Harris said. “It’s a real sign of intelligence. Most people can’t do that and have a hard time with it, but after a season of executing game plans, each player develops and gets better.
“And today we had a couple players that just didn’t stick with their game plan, and we’ve been trying to teach them that to get to the next level you’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable — and today they struggled with that.”
Koroleva’s doubles victory with Gumulya was their eighth straight as a tandem and improved their overall record to 10-1 on the season.
Gumulya held her serve at love to finish off the resounding victory over Fuller and Garcia, who had lost just twice in 24 matches prior to Friday. It marked Clemson’s first win over a No. 1 doubles team since 2011, when Kerri Wong and Josipa Bek defeated a top-ranked team from Florida.
“We’ve been playing together for awhile,” Koroleva said. “Every time we’re just getting better and better because we’re getting used to each other, and I’m getting better at doubles because I’m usually not a doubles player. But now I’m starting to poach, starting to volley, and Bea helps me out a lot because she’s a great doubles player. So, it’s working out really well for us.”
Ani Miao and Liz Jeukeng clinched the doubles point for Clemson with an impressive victory of their own, 8-1, over Georgia’s Lilly Kimbrell and Mia King, but for the first time this season, the Tigers failed to win the overall match after earning the doubles point, as it entered the day 9-0 when it had done so.
“They were so focused in the doubles and really executed their game plans,” Harris said. “They seemed very fresh, very eager. It just couldn’t have started out better, and we played this team three or four times better than we played them last time pretty much all the way through the lineup.”
Clemson appeared to have quickly seized control of the singles as well, as Koroleva immediately pounced on Herring, a player whose only loss since March 2 had come to the nation’s No. 1 overall player, Florida’s Lauren Embree.
But Koroleva made quick work of one of the nation’s truly elite players, pulverizing the Georgia sophomore with her hard first serve and heavy ground strokes.
“I’ve played her before and lost to her (6-4, 6-3 in February),” she said, “and I knew that it has to change, so I tried to do something different. Instead of hitting the ball too hard, I tried to make her run and add some variety to my game — and that worked.”
The Tigers (16-8) still seemed to be in good shape after Miao took the first set of her match on court five and Tristen Dewar rallied to force a third set on six, as victories in those two matches would have been enough for the Tigers to advance.
Instead, Dewar fell in three sets and Miao never finished her match, as freshman Liz Jeukeng dropped consecutive sets via tiebreaker to Georgia’s Maho Kowase, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), to end the Tigers’ season.
“It just wasn’t to be today,” Harris said, “and I think being predominantly a freshman and sophomore team, when things got really close, they really had a hard time. That is what is great about getting to the Sweet 16, is that we at least got this experience, and we’re delighted that they sort of made it to the dance. That’s the saying amongst the best 16 teams in the country, and when you say ‘Clemson,’ you’ve got Stanford and Virginia and Florida and UCLA and Cal. All the greats are here, and I’m just proud of this group of freshmen and sophomores for getting here.”
While the season is over for the Tiger team, three of its members, Koroleva, Jeukeng and Gumulya — the No. 16, 33 and 40 players in the nation, respectively — will take part in next week’s NCAA Singles Championships, the most Clemson had since 2010.
For her part, Koroleva admitted her performance Friday gave her a nice confidence boost
heading into that competition.
“Usually (Herring) is the kind of player that I would lose to — the kind that always gets the ball back and everything,” she said. “But I beat her with a score today that shows (me) that I can play with different types of players.”
The way Koroleva played against Georgia, there are few types of players who would be eager to play with her.