The Central Suburban League South division tennis dual meet between Evanston’s girls and Niles North took two days to complete after darkness fell Tuesday night in Skokie.
Anastasia Goncharova and Michelle Bacalla made it worth the wait for tennis fans who marveled at the performance of two of the top players in the state of Illinois.
Bacalla finally prevailed and handed the Evanston senior her first defeat of the season, winning the last two sets 7-5 and 6-1 on Wednesday after Goncharova had come from behind for a 7-6 triumph on Tuesday.
The matchup of players who finished second (Goncharova) and fourth (Bacalla) at last year’s Illinois High School Association state tournament was just the first of what could be four meetings between the two elite competitors. Bacalla likely earned the No. 1 seed for the upcoming league tournament — Goncharova (11-1) won’t be seeded lower than second — and potential collisions in the sectional and state tourneys are also on tap.
And if it’s any consolation to Goncharova, the ETHS southpaw lost both the regular season and conference tournament matches against her buddy Bacalla last year — then made it all the way to the state championship match. That’s a pattern that could definitely be repeated in their senior seasons.
Bacalla’s victory also clinched an unexpected 4-3 victory for the Vikings, less than a week after North lost to ETHS in a quadrangular meet with a different lineup.
“It’s a disappointing loss for us, because I don’t think we’ve ever lost to them before,” said ETHS head coach Joyce Anderson. “They were surprisingly strong using a different lineup from the last time we played them.
“I think Anastasia is still trying to get comfortable (following knee surgery that sidelined her for the entire summer) and it’s a comfort and confidence thing for her right now. I think if they had been able to finish the match on Tuesday she would have won, because she had the momentum. But Michelle came back and played really well today. Michelle didn’t give up a lot today, and sometimes the other person just plays better than you do.
“When you have two players at that high level, it’s anybody’s day. Yesterday Anastasia looked really good, and today it was Michelle’s turn.”
Goncharova struggled to deliver successful first serves on both days, but overcame those struggles on Tuesday and rallied to win after trailing 4-2. She managed 4 ace serves after that and finally caught Bacalla at 6-6, then whipped her in the tiebreaker. The two aces were tied at 2-all when the competition was halted, along with two doubles matches.
“It was a good time for me to stop so I could give my knee a break,” Goncharova said Tuesday. “The match had a lot of ups and downs, and it was just good for me to be back (playing) in a competitive environment like this. I finished on a great note, but I know tomorrow will be a new day.”
The two-day test also marked an opportunity for the Evanston senior to see how her aching knee held up in back-to-back competitions, especially considering the three-day grind that could await her at the IHSA state tourney in a couple of weeks.
Bacalla flashed her championship form on Wednesday, quickly building a 5-2 advantage before Goncharova battled back and overcame a double fault to tie the set at 5-all. But the ETHS star hit too long on game point in the 11th game, and hit a backhand into the net that enabled Bacalla to escape with a 7-5 triumph.
Bacalla sealed the win by sweeping the last 5 games of the decisive set.
Evanston did dominate the doubles competition, as the teams of Margot Connor/Annie Hedges, Grace Tabet/Sophia Demopoulos and Sasha Ekman/Leah Altman all scored wins for the Wildkits.
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.