COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The sixth-ranked Texas A&M women’s tennis team kicks off its inaugural Southeastern Conference campaign on Friday as the Aggies play host to No. 43 South Carolina. First serve against the Gamecocks is at 5 p.m. at the George P. Mitchell Tennis Center.
“The SEC, the ACC and the Pac-12 are certainly in terms of strength and depth the best conferences in the country,” A&M second-year head coach Howard Joffe said. “As you look at the SEC up and down, there is literally no match that is easy. They are all very, very fine teams and the whole trick, just like anything in sports, it’s about performing on the day. So we’ll get ready and we’ll need to perform very well if we want to get the win against South Carolina.”
The Aggies, picked to win the SEC Western Division according to the league’s preseason coaches’ poll, enter the historic match 6-1 and riding a four-match winning streak after defeating former Big 12 Conference rival Baylor, 4-0, on Wednesday at the Mitchell Tennis Center. All six of A&M’s victories this season have been against ranked opponents, including four against Top 25 teams, propelling the Aggies to their highest team ranking in school history. A&M’s only loss was to current No. 1 and ITA National Team Indoor champion North Carolina.
The Gamecocks are 7-3 following a doubleheader sweep in their final SEC primer on Saturday. South Carolina defeated No. 72 College of Charleston, 5-0, and then blanked Charleston Southern, 5-0, to extend its winning streak to three. The Gamecocks have been picked to finish fifth in the SEC Eastern Division, behind defending national and SEC champion Florida, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
Senior Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar leads the Aggies with a No. 6 national ranking in singles and a perfect 6-0 record at the No. 1 court. The All-American is 25-3 overall, including 14-1 against ranked opponents, and she is coming off a 6-2, 6-2 victory against 12th-ranked Ema Burgic of Baylor.
Senior Nazari Urbina, who is 1-1 at third singles, and junior Cristina Stancu, 4-1 at the No. 2 court, join Sanchez-Quintanar in the national singles rankings at No. 67 and No. 83, respectively. Senior Sun Wen, who was No. 82 in the preseason rankings, is 1-1 at No. 4 singles.
Two-time SEC freshman of the week honoree Stefania Hristov has been instrumental for the Aggies in the lower half of the singles lineup and is 6-1 overall, including 5-0 at the No. 6 line. She has clinched the Aggies’ winning point in dramatic fashion in each of the last two matches, overcoming a 4-2 third-set deficit to win, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, at the No. 6 line in A&M’s 4-3 win at 13th-ranked Michigan and coming back from a 6-1 hole in a second-set tiebreaker against Maria Biryukova of Baylor to win, 6-0, 7-6 (7) at No. 5 singles to put A&M ahead, 4-0.
Hristov and Stancu lead A&M in doubles with a No. 11 national ranking and a 4-2 mark at the No. 1 court. With Stancu out of the lineup against Baylor, Hristov teamed with freshman Anna Mamalat, and the rookies overcame a 3-0 deficit to win 9-7 at the No. 3 line to clinch the doubles point for A&M. Also against the Bears, Mamalat played No. 6 singles for only the second time this season and responded with a 6-2, 6-2 win to give A&M a 2-0 lead.
Two other freshmen, twins Ines and Paula Deheza, have come on strong in doubles, winning each of their last four matches. Against Baylor, the sisters moved up to the No. 2 line for the first time this season and responded with a commanding 8-3 victory.
The Gamecocks are led by senior Jaklin Alawi, who is ranked 69th in the nation in singles. Alawi was an All-SEC second team selection in 2012 and was tabbed the ITA Carolina Region Player to Watch at the conclusion of the 2012 season. She is 13-12 overall in singles, including 4-5 at the No. 1 line, and she is 7-2 at No. 1 doubles with Dominika Kanakova.
Junior Katerina Popova also is nationally ranked in singles, coming in at No. 108 this week. She is 13-4 overall, including 7-1 in dual matches, all on the No. 2 court. Popova also sports an 8-1 record at No. 2 doubles with partner Josefin Andersson.
Kevin Epley, who was hired by previous South Carolina and current Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman, is in his first season as head coach of the Gamecocks and welcomes five returning letterwinners who helped guide South Carolina to a fourth place finish in the SEC East and a 16-9 overall record after advancing to the NCAA second round in 2012.
The Gamecocks hold a 7-1 advantage in the all-time series against the Aggies, including a 4-0 mark in matches played in College Station. A&M and South Carolina first met in 1988 and faced off annually until they played for the last time in 1995.
A&M concludes its longest home stand of the season on Sunday against defending national champion, SEC preseason favorite and fourth-ranked Florida. First serve against the Gators is slated for 12 p.m. at the Mitchell Tennis Center.
Season and individual match tickets to Texas A&M home matches can be purchased online anytime at 12thManFoundation.com or during business hours at the Athletic Ticket Office located in The Zone at Kyle Field or by calling the ticket office at 1-888-99-AGGIE or 979-845-2311. Tickets also will be available for purchase on game days at the Mitchell Tennis Center beginning one hour before match time.
Visit AggieAthletics.com for more information on Texas A&M women’s tennis. Aggie fans also can keep up to date with the A&M women’s tennis team on Twitter by following @AggieWTEN or on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=tn_tnmn#!/pages/Aggie-Womens-Tennis/143874782434654
Friday, March 1 vs. No. 43 South Carolina, 5 p.m. (Mitchell Tennis Center)
Sunday, March 3 vs. No. 4 Florida, 12 p.m. (Mitchell Tennis Center)