NCAA tennis: Kopinski, White break All-America barrier
URBANA — For 20 years, Lindsey Nimmo belonged to a club of one in Illinois women’s tennis history.
On Friday afternoon, the 1993 All-American finally got some company.
By advancing to the quarterfinals of the NCAA doubles championships, Rachael White and Melissa Kopinski became the second and third Illini women to earn ITA All-America honors.
“I think we’re a little bit speechless,” said White, interceding for her doubles teammate after Kopinski choked up while trying to express her reaction. “It hasn’t quite hit us yet.”
Illini coach Michelle Dasso had plenty to say about this historic development after her dynamic duo outbattled Oklahoma’s ninth-ranked tandem of Hermon Brhane and Whitney Ritchie 6-4, 7-6(5) at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
“A Big Ten championship is something I’ve had my heart set on,” the seventh-year UI coach said, “but I’ll tell you what — two All-Americans ... is humbling and truly a vision of mine come true, and I’m certain a vision of those girls.”
Dasso noted that, as All-Americans, Kopinski and White would have banners raised in their honor inside Atkins Tennis Center alongside Nimmo’s.
“Getting a banner up in Atkins is something I’ve dreamt of since the day I got here on the women’s side because I don’t know if you’ve noticed (but there’s) a lot of men up there.
“What I especially love is we have two All-Americans that are all American. Both from the state of Illinois. (Earning it) in our home state, how cool is that?”
White and Kopinski (28-12) already have advanced deeper than any UI women’s doubles team at an NCAA Championships. The 22nd-ranked duo will try to keep going today when it faces Southern California’s second-ranked and second-seeded tandem of Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria at 1:30 p.m.
“It feels great, but we want to go as far as we can,” White said. “Take it one match at a time and not celebrate too early because we still have a long ways to go.”
If their next match is anything like the first two in the national draw, expect a tense finish. For the second day in a row, Illinois went to a tiebreaker in the second set to decide the outcome. Dasso acknowledged that her doubles team benefited from the experience of a similar tiebreaker one day earlier against a South Carolina tandem.
“But ultimately it comes down to them playing and executing,” the UI coach said. “And what they did the last two days is executed. (I’m) really proud of the girls with the pressure on.”
Actually, the greatest pressure on the Illini was just forcing the tiebreaker. In the second set, Illinois lost four of the first five games to fall into what appeared to be an insurmountable hole. But White and Kopinski dug themselves out, winning four of the next five games to tie it at 5. After again falling behind 6-5, the Illini won the next game to send the set to a tiebreak.
This time, Illinois put the Sooners in a hole, jumping to a 2-0 lead.
“I think that the first point is key,” White said, “and we got that. A lot of times they say whoever wins the first point in the tiebreak is going to end up winning that tiebreak.
“I think it definitely gave us confidence. We won the (tiebreak) yesterday, and we knew we could win it.”
In fact, Illinois never trailed in the tiebreaker, taking the lead for good at 5-4 and finishing off the Sooners when Brhane hit a shot into the net.
“They played so controlled in the pressure situations at the end there — both days,” Dasso said. “That’s two 7-6s in the second set. They’ve dug deep, and they’ve believed.”
The Illini entered with a good idea of what to expect. These same doubles tandems had squared off Feb. 24 indoors at Atkins Tennis Center next door to Khan. Kopinski and White prevailed in that one, too, albeit in a different scoring format but with a similarly nailbiting outcome 9-7.
When Dasso learned late Thursday afternoon of Illinois’ round of 16 opponent, she watched video of that match “so we certainly had a game plan.”
Still, it was up to White and Kopinski to execute it. Mission accomplished.
“We knew they were going to attack a lot so we had to make sure that we took over the net before they did,” White said. “We knew it was going to be a tough match, but we just played a little bit better than they did.”
Which means the Illini’s newly minted All-Americans lived to play another day.
“We know it’s not over yet,” Kopinski said.
Best of the bunch
A look at Illinois’ tennis All-Americans through the years:
Kevin Anderson (3) 2004-07
Michael Calkins 2001-02
Ryler DeHeart (2) 2004-06
Amer Delic (3) 2000-03
Cary Franklin (2) 1998-2000
Oliver Freelove 1998-99
Jeff Laski 1999-2000
Dennis Nevolo (2) 2010-12
Graydon Oliver (2) 1999-2001
Rajeev Ram 2002-03
Ryan Rowe (2) 2005-07
Gavin Sontag 1997-98
Phil Stolt 2003-04
Brian Wilson (2) 2002-04
Melissa Kopinski 2012-13
Lindsey Nimmo 1992-93
Rachael White 2012-13