Republished from the Columbia Missourian
COLUMBIA — When Missouri tennis player Tracy Dong fell 6-0, 6-1 to Kentucky junior Stephanie Fox, she didn’t have much time to sulk.
Dong had less than 30 minutes to move her feet from the indoor Green Tennis Center to the outdoor courts at Missouri’s new tennis complex, and her focus from No. 22 Kentucky to Bradley. With partner Kelli Hine, Dong would be taking on Bradley’s No. 3 doubles team in Missouri’s second match of the day.
“I took the first five, 10 minutes to just get the frustration out,” she said.
In the first match, Dong’s loss clinched a 4-2 Kentucky victory and stopped play in the No. 5 singles match, as the finish would no longer affect the overall outcome. Because Missouri freshman Cassidy Spearman was up 3-1 in the third set of that match, a Dong win could have put the Tigers in a position for its first conference victory of the season.
“I almost felt angry after that,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna collect my anger and just put it onto the court. That’s how I’m going to move on from that match.'”
It worked. Dong and Hine defeated Bradley’s No. 3 doubles duo 8-2, and Dong was the first to finish her singles match. With a 6-1, 6-0 win, she gave up as many games in her second singles match as she won in her first.
Dong wasn’t the only successful Tiger. Missouri swept Bradley 7-0, earning its fifth win of the year.
The Bradley match has only been on Missouri’s radar for three weeks. Coach Sasha Schmid added five matches to the Tigers’ schedule because the team had a disappointing non-conference record and a team must be above .500 to make the NCAA Tournament. The rule requiring a winning record is in its second year of existence.
“I really think for those of us in the SEC, it’s a tough rule,” Schmid said. “Obviously, we play in the toughest league in the nation, so for us to pick up wins in conference … those are quality wins.”
But the Bradley match served another purpose for the Tigers.
“It helps the kids go through matches when they have to close out,” Schmid said. “We had a really heart-wrenching loss this morning, and, again, maybe if we had a little more experience closing out some matches, we could’ve closed out a few of those (points).”
Missouri had its chances with Kentucky. Sophomore Madison Rhyner won the first set of the No. 4 singles match, 6-3, but dropped her second set in a tiebreaker and went on to lose 6-4 in the third. She had an opportunity to hold serve and earn a point for Missouri at 6-5 in the second match.
“It’s probably the closest (conference game), score-wise, we have had this season,” said Rachel Stuhlmann, who earned one of Missouri’s two points against Kentucky. “There was definitely four points out there for Mizzou, but it didn’t go our way.”
The two points against Kentucky were the most Missouri has tallied in conference play, during which the Tigers had lost all but one point. However, Schmid would have preferred a “W” to a stepping stone.
“I don’t honestly think at this point in the season we take any comfort in knowing we were close again,” she said. “We are ready to get a win against a ranked program.”
Because the Kentucky game was played inside the Green Tennis Center, which only houses four courts, the Nos. 5 and 6 players had a long wait before they could play their singles matches.
The first four singles matches split 2-2, and the pressure weighed on Dong as she waited. She said she tried to wait in a quiet room to refocus, but anxiety was still a factor.
“It did play a huge role,” she said. “I did have to learn to know how to handle that feeling, being the last one on, knowing that it’s really, really close.”
She said she would have preferred to play outside, where all six singles matches can start simultaneously, but low temperatures at the 10 a.m. start time necessitated an indoor match.
Missouri played close to seven total hours of tennis Sunday, but Schmid said that’s not much more strenuous than the team’s workload during the fall.
“I think it probably toughens up the kids, and they know they just gotta play a lot of tennis,” Schmid said. “They haven’t whined too much.”
The Tigers will get a repeat of Sunday’s situation when they host both Arkansas and Drake on March 16.