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Monday, April 22, 2019

Jayhawks’ success in doubles was key to capturing first Big 12 title

KU's Sonia Smagina and Anastasia Rychagova celebrates their team win during the Big 12 Championship Sunday afternoon at the Jayhawk Tennis Center on April 21, 2019.

KU's Sonia Smagina and Anastasia Rychagova celebrates their team win during the Big 12 Championship Sunday afternoon at the Jayhawk Tennis Center on April 21, 2019.

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The Jayhawks had two different chances to clinch a Big 12 Championship for the first time ever.

During Sunday’s final against top-seeded Texas, the Kansas women’s tennis team had two singles matches going on at the same time. Senior Anastasia Rychagova, KU’s top singles player, won the first set and was leading by a 6-5 margin in the second set before turning her attention to the court at the end of the Jayhawk Tennis Center.

Junior Maria Toran Ribes ultimately secured the final point of singles play for the No. 20 Jayhawks during a 4-2 win over the No. 7 Longhorns. It marked the program’s first conference title since 1996, when Kansas was in the Big 8.

From a mental perspective, though, it made all the difference in the world that Kansas had two potential clinching matches going on simultaneously. And that’s really a credit to KU claiming doubles point to begin the match.

“Honestly, knowing that you are starting 1-0, makes a big impact,” said Toran Ribes, who was named the Most Outstanding Performer of the tournament. “It makes a difference, but at the same time, we have to play well in singles.”

Toran Ribes and freshman Malkia Ngounoue netted a win in No. 3 doubles, while Rychagova and freshman Sonia Smagina clinched a victory in No. 2 doubles. No. 1 doubles went unfinished, because the doubles point had been spoken for.

But that’s nothing new for this team. The Jayhawks have claimed the doubles point in all but one of their 23 matches this season. KU has secured doubles point in 11 consecutive matches, which matches the team’s longest such streak of the season.

Kansas also opened the 2019 season by notching the doubles point in its first 11 matches. In fact, the only match the Jayhawks have dropped the doubles point came in a 6-1 loss to Oklahoma State on March 15.

“Girls are playing fearless doubles,” KU head coach Todd Chapman said. “They are not as scared to volley, they are not scared to get forward. They are not scared to pressure. But I think they have really, really been coachable. As much as anything this year, I think they have been extremely coachable in doubles.”

In the regular season, Kansas posted a 40-10 record between its three doubles teams. The Jayhawks then went 6-0 during the Big 12 Tournament. At No. 1 doubles, seniors Nina Khmelnitckaia and Janet Koch went 15-1 and was ranked No. 1 in the country at one point via the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.

Their match went unfinished in both the semifinals and championship final, but the No. 3-ranked duo recorded a 6-3 victory against TCU in the quarterfinals.

“The doubles point gives us the lead and brings the energy between all of us,” Khmelnitckaia said. “Carrying the momentum over to singles is really important.”

At No. 2 doubles, Rychagova and Smagina are ranked No. 73 after logging a 15-3 clip in the regular season. They also netted two wins during postseason play this past weekend. Toran Ribes and Ngounoue recorded a 10-6 record in the regular season at No. 3 doubles, and then won all three of their matches in the conference tournament.

So what is KU’s secret to an 80% clip in doubles play?

“I think we have great chemistry in each doubles team,” Toran Ribes said. “We work really hard, too. Our coaches are unbelievable in doubles.”

Whatever the reason, it is clear the Jayhawks’ run to a league crown wouldn’t have been possible without their prolific play in doubles.

“They have really bought in, we just play aggressive,” Chapman said. “We punch first (in) doubles. It is something we hang our hat on.”

Kansas will find out its destination for the NCAA Tournament during the selection show on Monday, April 29. The first round is slated to take place on May 3.

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