Anastasia Goncharova insists that she’s not one of those teenage tennis divas who thinks she’s too good to play for her high school team. The timing just wasn’t right for the Evanston junior to join her schoolmates playing her favorite sport — until this year.
Goncharova made an immediate impact in her high school debut Thursday at the Lake Street courts, leading ETHS to a 5-2 dual meet victory over Elk Grove in the 2016 season opener for both teams. Competing at No. 1 singles for the Wildkits, she scored a 7-6 (3), 6-3 victory over Jelena Vujanic, who finished in the 9-12 range at last year’s Illinois High School Association state tournament.
Wins by Val Abushevich at No. 3 singles and the doubles teams of Angelica Flint/Annabelle Hedges, Lola Knight/Sofia Chaudruc and Sasha Ekman/Sophia Demopoulos gave ETHS the victory in the debut for the girls program on their newly-refurbished home courts. The team spent all of last season practicing at three different sites during construction at the Lake Street facility.
Goncharova’s decision to play for the high school squad, after focusing on training and improving her own individual game for the past 2 years, means that the rebuilding job facing head coach Joyce Anderson following the graduation of 5 of the top 6 players from last year’s ETHS squad might not be as difficult as it seemed this fall.
“I’m not concerned about our lack of experience, because this year we have a lot more athleticism and more court sense,” Anderson said. “And I’m glad we finally got Anastasia to come out and play. She has a Blue Chip rank that puts her in the top 25 in her class in the entire country. She’s got finesse, she’s got touch, she’s got all of the shots.
“I’ve been trying to get her to play for us for the past 2 years, but she wasn’t comfortable breaking out of the training schedule she had. She’s really improved a lot over the past year and a half. In my (counseling) job at the high school I’m in contact with any athlete who wants to play in college, but I didn’t really pressure her to play. I think it was easier for her to make this decision once she got that (college) recruitable ranking.”
Goncharova’s training schedule will still allow her to work with her private coach, Vasily Guryanov, at least four times per week. She’s played under his tutelage for the past 7 years and has climbed the amateur rankings to the point where she has a solid chance to land a Division I college opportunity to keep playing at the next level.
Prior to Thursday’s win, she had just participated with some of the top junior players in the world at the National Hardcourt tournament in San Diego, Calif., where she won four rounds against fierce competition.
A left-handed hitter, Goncharova admitted she experienced a bit of a letdown against Vujanic in her first competitive match since the California trip. She struggled to serve consistently and let a 4-1 advantage in the first set slip away before she recovered to finally win the tiebreaker by a 7-3 margin.
“I learned a lot in San Diego and got to see what I needed to work on,” she said. “The players there are so much bigger (Goncharova is 5-foot-3 and about 120 pounds) and fit and much more powerful. But I took my game to another level after being ranked a 5-Star for a long time. Now I just want to represent my school at State this year and get the experience of playing on a high school team.
“My coach (Guryanov) never told me NOT to play in high school. We just talked about first getting comfortable with my school and classes while I’m training with and playing against some of the top players around. I just took my freshmen and sophomore years off to get myself together. And junior year is special for tennis players because that’s when the college coaches really start to recruit you.
“I had heard there were some people who were upset that I wasn’t playing, but I was just waiting for my time to come. Now I just want to represent my school because it’s such a great school! I have a super passion for tennis because it’s such a great sport, and it can be for yourself — or it can be a team sport, too. That totally depends on you.”
Abushevich, a sophomore who also played in the No. 3 slot on the varsity last year, blanked Elk Grove’s Alyssa Chopnis 6-0, 6-0 to account for Evanston’s other singles triumph. She figures to battle classmate Margot Connor for the singles spot behind Goncharova this fall. “Val’s footwork is much better this year, and so is her serve,” the coach pointed out.
Anderson, in her 7th year at the helm of the girls program at ETHS, usually focuses on building depth in doubles and this year is no exception. The No. 1 team of seniors Kathryn Halverson and Kiersa Berg suffered a three-set loss on Thursday, and the No. 2 doubles pairing figures to include two other seniors, Maya Lazarus and Taylor Rosenthal.
Halverson and Berg are stepping up a couple of spots on the ladder after playing in the No. 4 slot most of last fall. And Lazarus and Rosenthal are so committed to ending their high school careers on a high note that they both attended a camp at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater this summer just to fine tune their doubles communication.
“I’m going to try to keep both of those teams together for at least 2 or 3 weeks so they can build a record (for postseason seeding), and so they can develop some consistency,” said Anderson. “And we’ve got two sophomores in Angelica Flint and Annabelle Hedges who have improved a million times over last year. Angelica is such an incredible athlete and Angie has amazing doubles sense, too.”
The duo dumped Elk Grove’s Priya Patel and Jen Bhosker 6-0, 6-0 and Ekman and Dempoulos subdued Milleni Feliciano and Gigi Juarez 6-1, 6-0 on Thursday. Also in the doubles mix for the Kits are junior Lola Knight and sophomore Sofia Chaudruc, who scored a straight set shutout of their own.
Help will also come from seniors Katherine Mann, Eleanor Becker-Chiu and Catherine Fitzgibbons.
Anderson has introduced sabermetrics — at least on an elementary level — to her squad’s preparation this fall. She’s decided to fully chart practice shots and match points to determine just where individuals can improve their games, based on where their points are scored (forehand, backhand, etc.) and where errors take place.
The ETHS coach got the idea from a fellow coach, Joe Holguin, the manager of the A.C. Nielsen Tennis Center in Winnetka.
“This summer he helped me run my summer camp and he was (former ETHS star) Jessica Ampel’s coach,” Anderson said. “He started charting shots during the camp — he’s really a strategy guy — and I created my own simple charts. His are much more complicated than mine, but he was my inspiration.
We’ve done it all through the preseason and sometimes it’s very telling. And the kids really like it, too. Tennis players are smart and cerebral and it’s helpful to them for analyzing their games. It helps them identify their strengths and their weaknesses.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.