UT Tandem Advances To NCAA Quarterfinals
ATHENS, Ga. - Tennessee Lady Vol tennis senior Natalie Pluskota knew she let an opportunity to advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Singles Tournament slip away, falling 7-6 (1), 7-6 (6) to third-seeded Nicole Gibbs of Stanford on Friday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex. She wouldn't let it happen again in doubles.
Pluskota and junior Kata Szekely used a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2) victory over 18th-ranked Emily Fraser and Lindsey Hardenbergh (Virginia) to move on to Saturday's quarterfinals of the NCAA Doubles Tournament, both earning All-American honors in the process.
Despite allowing a 5-1 second-set lead to turn into a 6-5 deficit, Pluskota and Szekely became the third all-time Tennessee duo to reach the NCAA Doubles Tournament's "Elite Eight."
The Lady Vols tightened up, allowing Virginia to reel off five consecutive games - including two in which UT held 40-15 leads. That's when Pluskota and Szekely started to play their game again.
"They just went after it when they were down," said Szekely, who became the program's 15th all-time All-American with the win. "They tried to come back in the match and it happened. We didn't go after our shots as we had before. That's why they came back. After that, we just tried to stay positive. That was the most important thing to do. Thankfully, we broke them at 6-5."
Forcing a second-set tiebreaker, the two duos split the first four points. From there, it was all (Tennessee) orange as Pluskota and Szekely clinched the match with five points in a row.
"It's exciting," said Pluskota, who became the first Tennessee player to reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Doubles Tournament three times. "We're pumped. We left it all out there today and we came out on top. We're definitely going to celebrate, but we're also going to get ready for (Saturday)."
The outstanding senior is just the fourth UT player to become a four-time All-American. But it's her selfless attitude that has made her one of Tennessee's finest all-time doubles players.
"It's been a goal and a dream of mine to become a four-time All-American since my freshman year, but honestly, I'm just super pumped for Kata," Pluskota said. "I really wanted to get her All-American status and we accomplished that today."
The Lady Vols filled in a Big Orange checkmark Friday, but they still have unfinished business in Athens.
"It's great," Szekely said with a big smile. "Before the season started, that was one of my goals - to somehow become an All-American. I accomplished my biggest goal. Now, we have to go after it and try to win the tournament."
Pluskota and Szekely overcame their own deficit in the opening set, battling back from 4-2 and 5-4 holes. Fraser and Hardenbergh had set point but Tennessee's tandem retaliated to win the game.
Following UT's 6-5 lead, Virginia forced a tiebreaker that was dominated by Tennessee (7-3).
"Natalie has been there twice before in doubles and to get Kata a chance to be an All-American was special," said co-head coach Mike Patrick. "It's just pressure and they handled it as well as they could and fought to the very end. I'm just as proud as I can be of both of them."
For Pluskota, the end of the doubles match marked her fourth tiebreaker of the day, also playing two in singles.
Pluskota took the first break of the match in the first set to lead 4-2, but Gibbs battled back for a 4-all tie. Pluskota had two opportunities to close out the first set with another break at 5-4 and 6-5, but Gibbs held each time. After forcing the tiebreaker, Gibbs scored seven of eight points to go up a set.
Both players broke each other's serve to open the second set (1-1), but neither did the rest of the way. Pluskota forced the tiebreaker this time after trailing 6-5 and seemed to be running away with the race to seven, leading 5-1. After switching sides, Gibbs scored the next four points to tie it.
Pluskota held serve to lead 6-5 and had an opportunity to put it away at the net, but didn't get it over. Gibbs took advantage, scoring the next two points to win, 8-6.
"It was a battle," Pluskota said. "I left everything out there in my singles match. It was unfortunate it didn't go my way. I can't be upset. I had a quick turnaround to get ready for the doubles match and that was the most important thing going forward, getting a win in doubles."
That they did, winning for the 10th consecutive time and the 17th in 18 tries together.
On Saturday at 2 p.m. ET, they'll face Florida's Lauren Embree and Joanna Mather (ranked 22), who came back to defeat 5-8 seed Annie Goransson and Anett Schutting (California) 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Friday's Round of 16 match.
Pluskota and Szekely defeated Embree and Mather, 8-3, in the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships last November.
"We just have to go after it and leave it all out there," Pluskota said. "Everyone at this point is really good and wanting to win. We just have to stick to our gameplan and execute."
NCAA SINGLES TOURNAMENT - ROUND OF 16
 Nicole Gibbs (Stanford) def. Natalie Pluskota (UT) 7-6 (1), 7-6 (6)
NCAA DOUBLES TOURNAMENT - ROUND OF 16
Natalie Pluskota/Kata Szekely (UT) def. Emily Fraser/Lindsey Hardenbergh (Virginia) 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2)
BY THE NUMBERS
1: Reaching the NCAA Doubles Championships quarterfinals for the third time in her career, Natalie Pluskota became the first Lady Vol to accomplish the feat. She advanced to the semifinals as a freshman in 2009 with Caitlin Whoriskey, and the duo followed it up by reaching the championship match the following year.
3:Pluskota and Szekely are the third Tennessee duo to reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Doubles Tournament, marking the fourth time it's happened in UT history.
4: Pluskota is just the fourth Lady Vol to become a four-time All-American, matching the program record. Margi Lepsi and Manisha Malhotra were the first to do it in 1998, and were followed by Vilmarie Castellvi.
5: Pluskota is the fifth Lady Vol all-time to become a three-time All-American in doubles (2009, 2010 & 2012), joining Paula and Peta Kelly, Margie Lepsi, and Manisha Malhotra.
10:Consecutive doubles matches that Pluskota and Szekely have won together, owning a 17-1 overall record. Additionally, it marked Szekely's 13th consecutive win in doubles (also winning three with Joanna Henderson) and her 17th win in the last 18.
15: Szekely is the 15th all-time Lady Vol to earn All-American honors and the 10th to do so in doubles.
23: Where Szekely now ranks all-time with 63 doubles wins at Tennessee, a list she'll certainly climb before her time wearing orange is over.
106: Pluskota's 106 career doubles wins are tied for the sixth-most in Tennessee history with Zsofia Zubor (2006-10).