Alawi, Kanakova play ‘match of the year’ in No. 1 doubles position
Throughout the spring season, coach Kevin Epley has tried to instill enthusiasm and positivity in the women’s tennis team. Those same virtues, according to Epley, were the driving force behind No. 49 South Carolina’s loss to Alabama Sunday.
“Alabama came here and had better energy all the way through,” Epley said. “So that was the difference in the match.”
After winning the doubles point to start the day, USC (9-8, 2-5 SEC) fell to eighth-ranked Alabama 4-1.
The match started off strong for South Carolina, as USC’s top doubles pair of senior Jaklin Alawi and junior Dominika Kanakova recorded a major upset against Alabama’s Alexa Guarachi and Mary Anne Macfarlane, the No. 6 doubles pair in the nation.
After falling down 6-5 in the closing sets of the contest, the Gamecock pair was able to earn 8-6 comeback victory behind a dominant serving performance late from Kanakova.
“Our No. 1 doubles was fantastic,” Epley said. “Probably the match of the year.”
The doubles point was clinched on court three by junior Elixane Lechemia and freshman Ximena Siles Luna, who were able to hold off a late surge by Alabama’s No. 3 pair to secure the 8-6 victory after racing out to an initial 7-2 lead.
The singles portion of the competition was less encouraging for USC, as the Gamecocks lost the first four matches to secure the win for Alabama. Alawi and junior Katerina Popova, occupying the one and two courts, respectively, both suffered straight-set losses to top-100 opponents in No. 25 Macfarlane and No. 60 Guarachi.
“Singles, I just feel like if we’re 40-something in the country and we’re playing a top-10 team, we can’t have any holes in terms of negativity,” Epley said. “These girls we’re playing are positive and fighting and ready on every single court and not getting negative at all.”
Despite the loss Sunday, the No. 2 singles spot has treated Popova well this season. She is ranked No. 102 in the country in singles, and the loss against Alabama was only her third of the year playing in the second spot.
No. 78 nationally, Alawi has been given fits by top-ranked opponents as she occupies the No. 1 spot for Epley’s Gamecocks, compiling a 4-9 singles record in the position.
A pair of three-set victories on the three and four courts sealed the deal for Alabama (14-2, 6-1), as both Lechemia and Kanakova fell to the Tide.
South Carolina was also in action Friday against the No. 18 Auburn Tigers, picking up a 4-1 victory to give Epley his first win against a top-25 team as USC’s head coach. Victories on the one and two doubles courts, along with wins at the one, two and four spots in the singles competition, propelled the Gamecocks and ended a three-game skid prior to Friday’s contest.
“You’ve got to sort of incrementally get your confidence in things,” Epley said. “We had to see that we could play with some of the top teams.”
All three of South Carolina’s losses prior to Friday’s match came at the hands of top-30 opponents in No. 2 Florida, No. 5 Georgia, and No. 28 Tennessee.
USC will play Friday as it takes on Arkansas in Fayetteville. Before then, Epley will continue to implore his team to raise its energy level in hopes of clearing another mental hurdle for his team in his first year at the helm of Gamecock women’s tennis.
“We can play with these teams,” Epley said. “We’re just getting better every match, and this week we turned a little corner but not quite far enough, and hopefully, coming up, we can turn it even more.”