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North Texas prepares for successful spring season

North Texas prepares for successful spring season

North Texas prepares for successful spring season
January 15
21:01 2019

After completing their most successful fall campaign under longtime head coach Sujay Lama, the North Texas Mean Green tennis team is prepared to take on the new challenges of Spring 2019.

“The results in the fall were really, really encouraging,” Lama said. “That’s what we envisioned when we started the season. This veteran group, that if they do the work and have the right mindset, they would have success.”

The fall season for the Mean Green brought more hardware for the program. North Texas won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Regional Championship for the first time in school history last fall. The Mean Green won a flight championship at the Rice Invite and reached the round of 16 in the National Fall Championships. North Texas also participated in the ITA California Tournament in early October.

“From my years of doing college tennis, how you finish fall is huge going into the spring,” Lama said. “We had a positive momentum and good feelings going into the spring.”

North Texas began its preseason play last week. For Lama, it was an opportunity to see what the tennis team will bring to the spring season.

The head tennis coach, now in his 14th year with North Texas, feels the important factor for the spring will be staying healthy. The Mean Green will face a spring schedule that has them play multiple doubleheaders and matches with a day’s rest, February alone containing three doubleheaders matches in just 16 days.

“This is a brutal, brutal season,” Lama said. “We play nonstop tennis for three months, day in and day out. We play on hard courts and there’s only eight of us. Everybody really needs to take care of their body and we as coaches need to make the right calls, too.”

Senior Tamuna Kutubidze prepares to return the ball during a singles match against Abilene Christian University on Jan. 15. Will Baldwin.

One of the key players to have dealt with injuries is senior Tamuna Kutubidze. For the Tbilisi, Georgia native, staying on the court is extremely important in what will be her final semester.

“The goal that I have for this year is to stay healthy, cause that’s the thing that I’m struggling with,” Kutubidze said. “I want to keep my ranking because I’m up to the Top 50 right now.”

Kutubidze was ranked No. 45 in the ITA’s preseason ranking, but her highest rank comes in her pairing with fellow senior Maria Kononova. Kononova suffered a shoulder injury during the spring season of 2018, but managed to return and play a healthy fall season. In Kononova’s absence, Kutubidze went 3-0 in the No. 1 start. Kutubidze also received the C-USA Female Tennis Athlete of the Month award for September after defeating Alabama’s No. 70 nationally ranked Andie Daniell on Sept. 21.

Together, the two are ranked No. 21 in the country, the highest marks any North Texas tennis duo has ever received. In addition, fellow senior Mingying Liang received the first national ranking of her collegiate career last fall. Lama recognizes how impactful the seniors have been for the program.

“[They are the] greatest seniors in the history of this program, without any doubt,” Lama said. “What they have accomplished as a group, they’ve taken [North Texas] tennis to new heights that this university had never seen before.”

The winning that the tennis program has had with Lang, Kononova and Kutubidze on the roster fully supports Lama’s claim, but for him, it’s the improvement that he says he’s has seen off the court that he will take away.

“What I’m most impressed and proud of them is their maturity,” Lama said. “They have become young women who are mature. Most importantly for me, I know that when they do graduate, they are gonna be very successful people out there and they’re gonna make a difference in wherever they’re gonna be.”

Lama isn’t the only one that appreciates the senior class. Underclassmen, like junior Ivana Babic, have grown close to the senior class and hope to send them off with a successful semester.

“I’ve been with them since my freshman year,” Babic said. “For me, we are definitely like a family. I know every match they give everything and I hope that everybody else will give every match everything to make them proud.”

The Mean Green started their spring season with a 7-0 win against Abilene Christian on Tuesday. The match took place at the indoor tennis facilities of Lifetime Fitness in Plano, Texas.

“It was a great start,” Kononova said. “Everyone is happy how they played, but also not satisfied, which is a good thing.”

Kononova won her singles matchup in straight sets 6-4,6-3. The win was Kononova’s 69th in singles, building on her all-time wins record for the Mean Green.

“I was a little nervous before the match,” Kononova said. “This is my last first match of college. Once I got out there I felt good and this was a good measure to see how the fall went and what I still need to work on and get better with.”

In her doubles match, instead of her usual partner Kutubidze, Kononova was paired with Liang. The two won their doubles match 6-3, clinching the doubles point for the entire team.

Kutubidze was paired with sophomore Nidhi Surapaneni for doubles. The pair won 6-1 following Kononova and Liang’s match.

“A 7-0 win is a great way to start the year,” Kutubidze said. “It was weird that this was our last first match of the spring but we’re on to the next one and taking each match a day at a time. We can still get a lot better and we’re focused on that but overall a great win.”

Senior Minying Liang plays a singles match against Abilene Christian University on Jan. 15. Will Baldwin

Liang capped off the start of the seniors’ final semesters by clinching the match for North Texas in a 6-1, 7-5 win. All three of the Mean Green’s seniors were ranked players in the ITA’s Preseason Ranking, the most players to be ranked in program history.

The Mean Green won all but one of their matches on Tuesday in straight sets. It was the first time they had faced off against Abilene Christian since 2009.

North Texas will now go on the road to Iowa City for their next two matches. Lama hopes the trip will bring the team closer together, both on and off the court.

“When you go together and take a flight and you’re together as a team the whole time, that’s where you build those relationships,” Lama said. “Those are relationships that will help us this year, but more importantly, this is what they will take for the rest of their lives. They might not remember the matches they play but they’ll remember the van rides and the plane trips.”

The trip could be considered a homecoming for Lama, who went to college in Iowa. In Iowa City, a back-to-back matchup will see North Texas face Xavier in a neutral site contest on Saturday at 9 a.m., followed by the Iowa Hawkeyes on Sunday. The start time of Sunday’s matchup is to be determined.

The team’s ultimate goal for spring is to win the conference championship and have a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament. Lama knows it is a tall task for the team, but he feels his players can get in the position to do that.

“Everybody has to be selfless, everybody has to love each other, everybody has to be a family,” Lama said. “Just a powerful force of competitors out there, whose one mission is to get the victory and I do believe I see signs of that.”

Featured Image: UNT senior Maria Kononova runs for the ball during a singles match against Abilene Christian University on Jan. 15. Will Baldwin. 

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Caleb Akpan

Caleb Akpan

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