Season Preview: Who’s who in SEC women’s tennis

A preview of what's in store for the upcoming SEC tennis season

Though the weather across the Midwest might not have gotten the message yet, it’s tennis season in Columbia.

If you’re anything like me, the state of collegiate women’s tennis isn’t at the top of your head at any given moment. With that in mind, this guide aims to provide the average sports fan with a comprehensive look at what’s in store for Missouri women’s tennis this season. With the spring season of collegiate tennis already underway and SEC play starting up on Feb. 28th, it’s time to get informed on what to look for this season. But first, some context:

The League: National Collegiate Athletics Association Div. I (NCAA)

The NCAA consists of 32 separate conferences, and as expected, certain ones tend to dominate. A team that is not in the PAC-12 or the Southeastern Conference has won the national tournament only four times.

The tournament consists of 64 teams: the winner of each conference and 32 “at-large” spots. Missouri hasn’t earned a spot in the NCAA women’s tennis tournament since its creation in 1982. The current champion and perennial team to beat is Stanford, which has won 20 of the 38 NCAA Championships in women’s tennis including the most recent tournament with a 4-0 sweep of the current SEC powerhouse, Georgia.

The Conference: Southeastern Conference (SEC)

As far as women’s tennis is concerned, the conference outlook can be scary for teams like Missouri. Currently, 12 of the 14 SEC women’s tennis programs are ranked in the national top 50, the only exceptions being Missouri and Alabama. Sitting at the top of the SEC is Georgia, No. 8 in the country. Following not too far behind is Vanderbilt, sitting at No. 17.

The SEC tournament follows conference play and takes place in mid-April. The tournament format allows all SEC schools regardless of ranking to compete, seeded by record. Last year, No. 14 seed Missouri lost in the first round to No. 11 seed Arkansas with the Tigers’ only point coming from a Marta Oliveira singles win.

In recent history, Missouri has greatly struggled in SEC play. Since 2015, the team has won just 5 of 52 conference matches, less than a 10% win percentage. The Tigers’ last SEC win came in 2017, meaning they’ve lost 26 consecutive conference matchups.

The current SEC champion is South Carolina, who upset Georgia in the final of the 2019 tournament.

The Big Names

Katarina Jokic, Georgia

Jokic hasn’t slowed down since she narrowly lost to Miami’s Estela Perez-Somarriba, the current national No. 1 singles player, in the 2019 NCAA Tournament championship match – as a sophomore. Playing at the number one singles spot for the Bulldogs she will likely play against Missouri’s Serena Nash when the two teams face-off.

Christina Rosca, Vanderbilt

It’s common for collegiate players to compete in singles and doubles, but most have to pick one to excel in. Not Rosca. She’s currently ranked No. 18 in the country in both singles and doubles, with her partner Georgia Drummy. Over the last few weeks, Rosca has played in either the one or two spot for Vanderbilt, meaning she will likely face Nash or Ellie Wright when the Commodores visit Columbia. In doubles, Rosca and Gummy will almost certainly face off against Missouri’s Serena Nash and Gabrielle Goldin in the one spot doubles match.

Kaitlin Staines/Tenika McGiffin, Tennessee

Staines and McGiffin make up the No. 8 ranked doubles pair in the country. Having not lost a single doubles match so far in non-conference play this spring, the two will present a formidable challenge to Missouri’s Nash and Goldin when the teams meet. These two are likely to leave their mark on the SEC this season.

Ellie Wright, Missouri

While Wright may not be among the top national names in tennis at the moment, she’ll still be one to watch out for this season. Alternating between the one and two singles spots this season, Wright posts an impressive 65% win percentage in non-conference play this season, including a ranked singles win, at the Orlando Invitational. Wright has an especially successful doubles pairing with Vivien Ábrahám. The pair boasts an 80% win percentage so far this season. Typically playing in the second doubles spot, Wright has the opportunity to cement herself as a valuable doubles player to the team as well as a rock solid singles piece.

The Big Games

No. 43 Mississippi State at Missouri, Feb. 28

Missouri’s SEC home opener offers the Tigers one of their best chances for an SEC win. Mississippi State, though ranked in the top 50, is a very beatable squad. Suffering three losses this season, the Bulldogs aren’t on an especially strong trajectory to start the year. One of these losses came from an unranked Texas Tech who beat them in fairly dominant fashion. In singles play we can expect to see Mississippi State’s No. 122 Emma Antonaki facing off against Missouri’s Serena Nash or Ellie Wright in the first spot, offering Missouri an opportunity for a ranked singles win. Missouri’s second singles spot has a valuable opportunity against Mississippi State’s Tamara Racine who has won just two of her eight singles bouts this year and looks to face off against either Nash, Wright, or Ábrahám in this match. In doubles, Mississippi State’s duo of Adaloglou and Racine have just fallen out of the ITA rankings and will look to defeat Missouri’s Serena Nash and Gabriell Goldin in the first spot. This match will be a must-watch.

No. 30 South Carolina at No. 8 Georgia, March 15

In this repeat of the SEC championship final from last year, viewers will get to see some of the best tennis the conference has to offer. Georgia has four of the top 100 singles players in the country in No. 27 Katarina Jokic, No. 34 Lea Ma, No. 52 Meg Kowalski and No. 86 Marta Gonzalez. On the flip side, the Gamecocks field two of their own elite singles players in No. 20 Megan Davies, and No. 42 Mia Horvit. In doubles, both teams have two pairs each in the ITA rankings. Needless to say, this match in Athens will be a duel between two SEC powerhouses looking to make a difference and maybe even both make it to the national tournament in May.

Alabama at Missouri, March 27

As the SEC currently stands, this game will offer Missouri it’s best shot at its first SEC win in three years. In fact, Missouri’s last conference win was against Alabama in the last match of the 2017 spring season. Alabama’s biggest threat is in doubles competition, where Miko Ito and Isabella Harvison sit at No. 55 in the country. Ito and Harvison will likely face off against Missouri’s Nash and Goldin to set the tone for the rest of the match. Another name to know on this Crimson Tide roster is Alba Cortina Pou who, playing at the number three or two spot, has not lost a match yet this season. Cortina Pou will likely face off against Wright, or Ábrahám in the match. Alabama has lost only one team match this season. That loss came against an unranked Michigan State.

No. 31 Auburn at No. 26 Tennessee, April 9

For those with a love for doubles tennis, this match might make your day. In what should be the best SEC doubles matchup of the year, viewers will get to see No. 8 Staines/McGiffin (Tennessee) compete against No. 9 Russo/Ovunc (Auburn). As far as team play goes, Auburn sits at a 6-1 record racking up wins against unranked teams with clinical efficiency, dropping only 3 team points to these unranked teams. Auburn’s sole loss of the season so far came from No. 1 North Carolina in a 0-4 sweep. Tennessee boasts a 7-1 record so far in non-conference play with a slightly more impressive winning spree. Along with their five wins against unranked teams, Tennessee defeated two ranked opponents along the way. The Volunteers’ only loss of the season came against No. 9 Virginia in a very close match. Both SEC teams have a lot to gain from this match as well as a lot to lose.

Missouri at No. 8 Georgia April 3

The odds of this match actually being competitive are quite low but hey, a sports writer can dream. If the Tigers were able to edge out the Bulldogs in this match, it would mark Missouri’s first ranked win since 2017, a narrow 4-3 win against Texas A&M. When the two teams last faced, Georgia swept Missouri 4-0. Though both teams have lost 2 matches so far this season, Georgia’s only losses came from No. 4 NC State and No. 10 Duke compared to Missouri’s losses to No. 50 Kansas State and No. 23 Old Dominion. There is a very good chance we see a repeat of last year.

So What?

MU’s women’s tennis team is facing an uphill battle in the SEC this year – another understatement. But within that inevitable challenge lies inevitable opportunity. The Tigers have loads of promise on this squad. Freshman Elys Ventura is winning just over 83% of her singles sets this season followed closely by Marta Oliveira who has lost only seven of her 28 finished singles sets this year. In doubles, the team as a whole is winning just over 65% of their matches. Coach Colt Gaston has every reason to love the squad and their performance this year. In many ways, this squad could be the best he’s had during his head coaching career. The question will be if the talent of this roster can translate into some solid conference results.

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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