By David Villavicencio
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The City of Miami is full of tennis fans.
The Sony Open, held annually at the Crandon Park Tennis Center on Key Biscayne, is packed for two weeks every year as fans flock to see the world’s best tennis players compete at the highest level.
But tennis lovers and Hurricanes fans will not need to wait another year to witness high-level tennis again, as the No. 10 University of Miami women’s tennis team hosts No. 1 North Carolina and No. 9 Duke this weekend at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center on the University of Miami campus.
“Obviously, it’s big for our program and I think it’s big for the young kids to experience this excitement,” said women’s tennis coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews. “I think it’s going to be an exciting time at the facility and I hope the kids go out and have fun.”
Facing the top-ranked Tar Heels and another Top 10 team in Duke will be a challenge for the Hurricanes, but Yaroshuk-Tews feels this weekend’s matches are just as important as any other the Canes have played this season.
“When you have the No. 1 team in the country coming to your facility, it’s exciting and it’s fun,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “Is it important? Yeah, it’s important, but we’ve told ourselves all year that every match is important. We don’t want to look at this match as anything different. We want to continue preparing the way we’ve been preparing.”
The Hurricanes, who feature five newcomers on their roster, have an impressive 15-3 record on the season. Miami, who is 6-1 in the ACC, is tied with Virginia for the most conference wins so far this season.
“The way I’m coaching them, they’re just another student-athlete out here,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior. In order to have special programs and special seasons, freshmen need to step up. Freshmen need to play big in big moments and all of these girls have played great tennis in big moments.”
Freshmen Stephanie Wagner, Kelsey Laurente, Clementina Riobueno and Deborah Suarez each have double-digit wins on the season. Wagner and Riobueno lead the group with 18 wins each, while Laurente (12) and Suarez (10) are not far behind.
Sophomore Monique Albuquerque is the fifth newcomer on the Hurricane roster. The Brazilian native is 6-6 on the season but she has elevated her game in conference matches, playing to a 4-2 record.
“Monique Albuquerque has been really improving and stepping up,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She has been increasing her level of awareness in matches. I think she is really finding her groove in college tennis. I think she is crucial because she is such a great athlete and such a smart tennis player. She has so much to offer.”
Returning players Lina Lileikite, Brittany Dubins and Melissa Bolivar round out a talented Canes roster. While the Canes do not have a traditional star playing the No. 1 singles position, Yaroshuk-Tews believes her team has multiple players who can play at that level.
“I think it’s good for the program,” Yaroshuk-Tews said of having multiple options for the No. 1 singles position. “It’s good for team unity and it’s good for our philosophy. I think that we have four or five kids that truly believe that they could step up and play one and they’re correct.”
With so much young talent on her roster, Yaroshuk-Tews cannot help but get excited about her team’s prospects going forward.
“It’s exciting because you see there’s a strong future here,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “There’s a strong future with the program that we’re going to have the same group back next year and have the opportunity to get these kids even better.”
The veteran coach is excited to have so much talent on her roster because it breeds competition and that makes all of her student-athletes better tennis players. Yaroshuk-Tews also likes the fact that her team is so deep because she knows she can get significant contributions from all of her players at any time.
“At some point in the season, your point at No. 6, your point in doubles and how hard your No.7 and No. 8 are working is going to define the success you’re going to have down the road. Last year, Brittany Dubins maybe was struggling at times during the season at No. 6, but we knew that if she stepped up at the right time that was going to be a defining moment for our program and it was. She stepped up at a huge time at NCAAs.”
Lileikite and her teammates have bought into the philosophy that Yaroshuk-Tews and assistant coach Alex Santos preach. The sophomore believes that the Hurricanes will get positive results if they follow their coaches’ lead.
“We have to stay positive and engaged as a whole team because it really helps us,” Lileikite said. “We have to fight for every single point. We know that no matter what, even if we’re down, we can take our momentum and change the game. We just need to stay together stay positive and enjoy our match.”
Yaroshuk-Tews believes her team will play well against the No. 1 Tar Heels and No. 9 Blue Devils. Even if they do not get the result they desire, Yaroshuk-Tews believes facing these talented teams will be a positive for her program.
“The fact that these teams are in our conference just make us stronger week in and week out,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “We’re going to see Duke and UNC this weekend and we may see them two weeks from now at the ACC tournament and then potentially again at NCAAs.”
The Hurricanes are 8-1 in home matches this season. Their only home loss came on Feb. 23 against rival Florida State. The match was a key moment for the Canes and Yaroshuk-Tews believes her team is better because of it.
“We had kind of a big moment for this program after the FSU match,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “I think that was a turning point because they saw that they can’t just show up out here and wear the University of Miami clothes and win matches. They’ve got to win matches by outworking kids and by preparing.”
This weekend will go a long way towards preparing the Hurricanes for the post-season. Miami is set to play in the ACC tournament beginning on April 25. The Canes will also take the court in the NCAA tournament beginning on May 10.
“This weekend is very good because we’re playing two great teams in three days which is kind of like ACCs and NCAAs,” Lileikite said. “In those tournaments every single team is hard, so it’s kind of going to be the same and it’s going to be good for us.”
Yaroshuk-Tews agrees that her team will benefit from the matches this weekend. But the veteran coach believes the Hurricanes have grown significantly throughout the season thanks to their tough ACC schedule.
“Playing in this conference prepares you,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “We have a dual-match against the No.1 team in the country and we have a dual match two days later against a Top 10 team in the country. It’s the best conference to play in, in my opinion, because you know you’re playing the best every weekend. These kids are used to playing a high level of tennis all season long as opposed to some of these programs that are coming from weaker conferences. They are very good teams, they’re very dangerous teams, but they’re not used to playing at such a high level on a consistent basis.”
While the team is focused on preparing for this weekend’s matches, Lileikite admits the players are excited for the challenge. The opportunity to beat a top-ranked team is something her and her teammates have not had the chance to do before and they cannot wait to compete against the best team in the country.“The team is really excited because we know it’s a really good opportunity,” Lileikite said. These would be really good wins for us and we will compete hard and do our best. We’re really motivated because we have done a really good job throughout the season. We have won against good universities and we will continue fighting hard.”