PHILADELPHIA - Exactly three weeks after earning The Ivy League's automatic qualifier into the NCAA Championships singles draw, freshman Connie Hsu will make the long awaited trip to Stanford as the tournament gets underway this Wednesday. Draws for the tournament have yet to be announced. Hsu (43-2 overall) comes into the tournament having won all 20 of her singles matches this spring and has not dropped a set during that span.
The NCAA Championships will be held at Stanford's Taube Tennis Center. The singles tournament begins on Wednesday, May 25 and runs through Monday, May 30. Players will play each day provided that they win the previous match in the single elimination tournament. 15 automatic qualifiers along with 49 at-large selections make up 64-player singles field.
Penn finished the team portion of the season on May 17 with an Ivy League victory over Columbia, but Hsu has not slowed down her training regiment since that time in anticipation of this week. Since taking her final exams for the spring semester, Hsu has been working with coaches and teammates in the morning, afternoon, and night. Her schedule has consisted of working with the coaches in the morning, playing points with her teammates in the afternoon, and hitting with her dad in the evening. Hsu has also participated in two tournaments since the Columbia match to keep the edge that she maintained during the season.
Despite her relative inexperience at the collegiate level being a freshman, Hsu is no stranger to playing in big tournaments around the country.
"Playing in premier tournaments throughout my career has helped me immensely in building my confidence and experience under pressure, which will definitely get me through tight situations during the NCAA Championships. But I am also expecting other players to handle tough matches as well as me or even better because I am sure many players have participated in more premier tournaments and NCAA Championships than me," Hsu said. "I feel like it is up to me to show my resilience in the tournament, especially when I am matched up with all of the outstanding competitors and amazing players in the draws."
Hsu's head coach, Sanela Kunovac, has also been able to give Hsu some advice on what to expect when she gets to California from her playing experience in the team championships, but also stressed the importance of not getting caught up in the hype.
"I have been able to give her an idea of what she can expect. At the same time, our goal is to approach the NCAA's with the same level of focus and determination that she's approached all of the other matches she's played this entire school year," Kunovac explained. "If she does that, she will be very successful."
Although this is the first time that Hsu will take part in the NCAA Championships, she has already competed and won against some of the top college competition across the nation. Coming into the tournament, Hsu is a combined 6-2 this season against the other NCAA qualifiers. The first of those losses came to Michaela Kissell of Marshall in three sets during the seventh match Hsu had played in six days in ITA qualifying. Hsu had defeated Kissell in straight-sets (6-3, 6-2) earlier in the year. Her only other loss on the season came to Denise Mureson of Michigan, which was also a three-set match that went to a final set tiebreak. Mureson is seeded eighth coming into this weekend. Playing against some of the best competition in the country is something that should benefit Hsu this week.
"At the ITA Indoor Championships, I was able to see how incredible other top college players were and the level of tennis I saw was astounding. I went into the spring season trying my best to maintain my fitness and improve my tennis skills. My goal throughout the spring season was to do well enough to place myself into the NCAA Championships and play the same level of tennis that I saw at ITA. Even though the workload at Penn was very difficult to balance with my tennis, I was able to build my confidence and improve a lot in my overall game. With the extra training after the season, I just hope I can combine everything I've learned up to this point and do extremely well in the NCAA's."
Hsu is the first Quaker to qualify for the NCAA Championships in singles since Alice Pirsu qualified during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, earning All-American honors both times by advancing to the Round of 16 and quarterfinals during her two trips. Kunovac, a teammate of Pirsu at Penn, sees some differences between her current player and her former teammate, but they also have one very important factor in common.
"Alice was older when she played the NCAAs, so with that I think she came into the tournament with more experience than Connie is bringing in at the moment," said Kunovac. (Pirsu turned 24 a week before her second appearance at NCAA's). "Although they differ a bit in the experience category, they both bring the competitive spirit and the ability to raise their level of play in important junctures of the match."
Due to all the hard work that has gone into Hsu qualifying for the NCAA tournament this season, the Quaker freshman is going to be extremely focused heading into competition on Wednesday.
"My approach to the NCAA Championships is definitely different from other big tournaments because a player must be able to keep winning tough matches all year round in order to be able to get into this tournament. I feel extremely honored to have the opportunity to participate in it because it really reflects all the hard work I've put into tennis this year and all of the achievements that I have gotten to get into the tournament. All in all, I really hope I could take this chance to help Penn get an NCAA title!"
Regardless of the outcome this week, Kunovac, who is just in her second season at Penn, can start to see all the hard work that she, her assistants, and players have all been putting into the program.
"Getting to the NCAAs, both as a team, and with singles players and the doubles team, was my goal for the team and for the players from the very start. It is difficult to predict if the goal will be accomplished with your very first recruiting class or few years later, but if you focus on the process and on putting the correct building blocks in place, it shows you that it's just a matter of time before the hard works starts paying off."