KU doubles team advances to Round of 16 at nationals with help of unusual secret weapon
Even as late as Wednesday night, in a hotel room in Winston Salem, N.C., one half of the KU women's tennis doubles team playing in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament thought there was an outside shot that pain from her injured ribs would subside just long enough to actually let her play a normal match on Thursday afternoon.
But it never happened.
Not long into the warm-up session for their match against Central Florida on Thursday, KU junior Anastasia Rychagova, who teamed with Nina Khmelnitckaia to knock off the No. 61-ranked UCF doubles team of Ksenia Kuznetsova and Maria Martinez in a three-set thriller (6-4, 5-7, 10-4 tiebreaker), gave in to the idea of serving the entire match underhanded.
“I don't even think when I was four years old I was serving underhand,” Rychagova told the Journal-World in a phone interview after the improbable victory. “When I first heard my coaches talking about me serving underhand, I just remember thinking, 'There's no way you're being serious, right?' But that was the only way.”
And so Rychagova, who hails from Moscow, Russia, powered through and did the best she could to make her serves count.
Anyone familiar with tennis at the major college or professional level knows that most serves are ripped faster than cars can travel on the highway, so the mere thought of Rychagova serving underhanded, and at speeds not even half as fast as her overhand serve, makes it nearly impossible to imagine her team winning.
“I was trying to make it more creative, trying to put more spin on it and make it as low as I could so they couldn't really attack as much,” Rychagova said. “We really had nothing to lose so why not try it.”
Making matters worse, but also contributing to that devil-may-care attitude, was the location of Thursday's thrilling match.
“I was talking to my coach and I was like, 'I just really hope they put us on the lower court so people cannot come watch me,'” Rychagova said. “But they put us on center court so there were a lot of people watching because they were right there.”
Rychagova's wild win on Thursday marked her first time on the court in an actual match for Kansas in more than two months. Multiple rib injuries, including one this spring just when her and Khmelnitckaia were hitting their stride and had climbed to as high as No. 12 in the nation, cost her some serious time, but they never broke her spirit.
When the Jayhawks qualified for nationals, Rychagova, who typically is a singles player and was ranked No. 1 in the country after the Fall season, No. 3 when she was injured in March and still as high as No. 8 this week, immediately put it in her mind that she would play, one way or the other.
“I really wanted to play this tournament and I knew it would be a close call,” she said. “I haven't played in eight weeks and three days before the tournament started I realized I can't really serve fully because my ribs were still really bothering me. But that really didn't matter. I knew if serving underhand was the only way for me to play, I would take it any day.”
After a string of bad luck kept Rychagova from enjoying the junior season she envisioned, a little good luck actually worked in her favor on Thursday. See, although she and Khmelnitckaia did not actually win any of the service games on Rychagova's serve — except for match point in the 10-point tiebreaker in the third set — they did notice the UCF team getting more and more frustrated by the unusual style as the match wore on.
“I feel like it was putting a little pressure on them because they knew they had to take this game because of my serves,” Rychagova said. “When they ended up losing a point they were kind of freaking out because they knew they shouldn't be losing.”
Rychagova credited Khmelnitckaia for her willingness to help carry the load and adjust to whatever new strategies they had to try to get through the match. And KU coach Todd Chapman had nothing but praise for both players after the victory.
“We are so proud of Nas (Rychagova) and Nina," Chapman said. "They haven't played a match together in nine weeks and to come through in such a pressure situation is quite unbelievable."
The perfect ending to the unexpected day came in the third set, when it was Rychagova's serve that kicked off the rally that led to match point and sent the Jayhawks into the Sweet 16, where they'll take on Vanderbilt at noon Friday with a trip to the quarterfinals, which would earn both players All-American honors.
Vanderbilt's doubles team of Fernanda Contreras and Astra Sharma upset No. 2 seed North Carolina on Thursday.
As for Rychagova's mindset heading into Thursday night, she was right back to where she was Wednesday, looking for a miracle so she can play the kind of tennis she's used to.
“I'm still kind of hoping it's going to kind of completely heal, but we'll see,” she said. “We'll kind of keep it a secret and go from there. But we're excited and we have nothing to lose. Maybe I'll ace some tomorrow.”