RCW: Sport Spotlight 4.25 (Tennis)
NINA WINS! She won it in three 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (12-10)! #KUtennis
— Kansas Tennis (@KansasTennis) March 3, 2018
A post shared by Kansas Tennis (@kansastennis) on Mar 3, 2018 at 10:15am PST
For the Kansas tennis team last Friday in its match against then-No. 21 Wichita State at the Jayhawk Tennis Center at Rock Chalk Park the motto of the evening was evident – the match isn’t over until Nina says it is.
Junior Nina Khmelnitckaia, playing No. 4 singles held the key to the then-No. 20 Jayhawks’ fate, as the dual was knotted 3-3, and her match against Marta Belluco was the deciding factor. Khmelnitckaia jumped out with a 6-2 win in the first set, but fell 6-4 in the second set to force the third frame.
Khmelnitckaia and Belluco traded blows in the early going of the deciding third set and after four games were tied, 2-2. That was when things got interesting. Belluco notched three-straight winning games and then took a decisive 40-0 lead in the eighth en route to an apparent win.
“I started struggling with my emotions during that second set, and by doing that I made it harder for myself to focus on tennis,” Khmelnitckaia said. “It was a matter of will and heart to be able to overcome the emotional struggles and believe in my preparation. I think I knew that my coaches and teammates believe in me and that’s the thing I had to do for myself.”
Head coach Todd Chapman offered his insight into the match as well.
“As a coach you definitely have the opportunity to ride the roller coaster of emotions along with the match score,” Chapman said. “I have definitely learned over the years that if I become too involved emotionally in the score, it can easily cause you to miss something you need to be paying attention to within the match itself. With that being said, a match like (the one) Nina had makes it really tough not to get too caught up in the emotions of it.”
Showing that will and heart, Khmelnitckaia battled back to win the eighth game and eventually forced the match into a tiebreaker with the set tied, 6-6. Not even the tiebreaker was easy. For 20 minutes, in a near-three-hour match, Khmelnitckaia and Belluco extended the tiebreaker before the native of Moscow, Russia finally sealed the set and match with a 12-10 win.
“Being down that big, I never stopped trying to put another ball over the net,” Khmelnitckaia said. “I thought to myself that if I keep doing that I can give myself a chance to stay longer in the match and whatever happens – happens! After couple of games with that kind of mentality it allowed me to get back into the match, which eventually helped my team get the win.”
Chapman reflected on the emotions of the match as well.
“It was definitely a great comeback that ranks in the top three of my career for sure,” Chapman said. “In all honesty, I knew she had a chance once she fought off the first four match points and got the match to 3-5. I can also honestly say when she got into the tiebreaker of the third set, my mindset was really one point at a time. I can’t ever say I thought she had it, I can say I knew she had a great opportunity. So, when the last ball by her opponent went into the net, I knew she had it!”
Looking back, Khmelnitckaia has already defined this match as one for the ages.
“It was for sure the most grueling match since I’ve been at KU,” Khmelnitckaia said. “I believe it is also the most grueling match of my entire tennis career.”