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Women’s tennis: Christina Hand-Justine Leong doubles team makes semifinal run at ITA Midwest Regional

The ‘Cats showed encouraging signs against some of the best in the Big Ten (and the nation).

@NUWildcatTennis / Twitter

After starting its season with the Notre Dame Invitational and ITA All-American Championships in early October, Northwestern women’s tennis turned its sights to the Midwest last weekend. The ‘Cats headed up to East Lansing on Thursday, Oct. 12 to participate in the ITA Midwest Regional Championships, which ran through Tuesday, Oct. 17. Returning most of their core from 2022-23, the ‘Cats were in prime position to push top players from Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame, among other schools.

NU immediately started off the opening day with a bang. Four Wildcats were slotted into the qualifying draw for the singles tournament, which meant each player had to win two matches in the field of 64 to snap up one of the 16 open spots in the main draw. Impressively, three of those four players qualified: first-year Neena Feldman, junior Kiley Rabjohns and first-year Autumn Rabjohns (Kiley’s younger sister).

En route to making it through, that trio didn’t lose a single set in its combined six matches. As a result, Northwestern found itself with nine players in the final 64. Jennifer Riester, Justine Leong, Christina Hand, Sydney Pratt, Maria Shusharina and Britany Lau rounded out that group.

Only three players — Hand, Leong and Kiley Rabjohns — were able to make it out of the first round, but they made some noise. Hand made a run to the quarterfinals, where she took national No. 16 Irina Cantos Siemers of Ohio State to three sets. Rabjohns and Leong both fell in the Round of 32, but the former took Wisconsin’s No. 119 Alina Murkhortova to three sets. Those two played a thrilling second set, which Murkhortova won in a 7-3 tiebreaker. She’d eventually lose in the following round to Michigan’s No. 24 Kari Miller, who ended up winning the whole thing.

As that was unfolding, an even better outcome was in the works for Northwestern. The Wildcats had five doubles teams competing for the title: Hand and Leong, Pratt and Elisa van Meeteren, Lau and Shusharina, Feldman and Kiley Rabjohns, as well as Riester and Autumn Rabjohns. Three of those five duos advanced out of the Round of 64, with Feldman and the elder Rabjohns falling in a long tiebreaker that ended 8-6 to cap off the one-set match. Hand and Leong, the No. 26-ranked team in the nation, earned a bye, while Lau-Shusharina and Pratt-van Meeteren both secured easy 8-4 and 8-1 victories, respectively.

Unfortunately, the latter duo faced a nightmare matchup in the Round of 32, with Michigan’s No. 4-ranked Miller and Jaedan Brown waiting for it. Although Pratt and van Meeteren lost to the eventual champions, they put up a pretty valiant fight in an 8-5 defeat. Elsewhere, Hand and Leong took down Illinois State’s Lana Caculovic and Tijana Zlatanovic 8-5, while Lau and Shusharina beat Valparaiso’s Diana Lukyanova and Isabella Righi 8-3 to send two Northwestern teams to the Round of 16.

Both duos still weren’t done. Hand and Leong continued to pick up steam with their 8-4 win over MSU’s Issey Purser and Ria Bhakta, but the biggest single-match performance of the weekend came from Lau and Shusharina. They faced Ohio State’s Sydni Ratliff and Shelly Bereznyak. Although OSU didn’t run out its top doubles team of Ratliff and Cantos Siemers, ranked No. 14 in the nation, it still had two extremely talented players working together. Ratliff is the No. 27 singles player in the country, and Bereznyak is at No. 69. Lau and Shusharina are unranked, so pulling off the upset seemed like a daunting task.

The Northwestern duo went out and secured the victory handily, earning an 8-4 win to put two NU teams in the quarters. Although Lau and Shusharina ran into Miller and Brown, who won 8-4, Hand and Leong kept their run going. Forced into a tiebreaker by DePaul’s Greta Carbone and Hannah Smith, Northwestern’s top team prevailed in a 7-5 nailbiter to earn the 8-7 win and move to the semifinals by the slimmest of margins.

You can probably guess who was waiting for them there. However, that didn’t stop Hand and Leong from giving Michigan’s stars a run for their money in the 8-6 loss. They played the champions tighter than all but one team in the tournament: Cantos Siemers and Luciana Perry of the Buckeyes, who forced Miller and Brown into a tiebreaker in the final.

For three of NU’s five doubles teams to all go down swinging against a Michigan duo that’s in contention for a national title is really encouraging. Hand and Leong flashed their talent both in singles and doubles play, and proved that they’re more than capable of hanging around with the nation’s best.

Perhaps even more importantly, the ‘Cats got to see Lau thrive in doubles action against elite players like Ratliff and Bereznyak. A grad transfer from Brown, Lau should be a crucial piece of Northwestern’s team come spring, and her chemistry with Shusharina in doubles play only reaffirmed that.

The ‘Cats will have another week and a half off before heading out west to San Diego for the ITA National Fall Championships on Nov. 1.