Double Trouble: Riske and Tsoubanos Capture National Title
By Andrew Derr

Opposites do attract, and for the Vanderbilt women's tennis team the payoff was never more evident than this past month when doubles partners Sarah Riske and Aleke Tsoubanos won the Riviera/ITA Women's All-American Championships in Pacific Palisades, Calif.

For the past three years, Riske - a senior and dominant singles player - has teamed with Tsoubanos - a junior and naturally gifted doubles player - to become the #1 ranked tandem in women's collegiate tennis heading into the 2002-2003 season. At the Riviera Country Club, playing in the premier fall event for college tennis, they put that ranking to the test and emerged victorious. Riske and Tsoubanos ousted teams from Indiana (8-3), Georgia (8-1), and Maryland (8-3) before defeating an Oklahoma State duo in the finals, 8-4. In doing so, they became the first Commodores ever to win the event.

"I know we were the #1 ranked team going out there, but we didn't really feel any pressure," Riske said. "I think we played more going after people, instead of holding the ranking. We did well last year to deserve it, but we had not proved the spot until now."

"We prepared well for that match," Tsoubanos added. "I don't think we gave them any opportunities to get back in the match. We didn't let them get excited about making a comeback."

Head coach Geoff Macdonald was certainly proud of his top team's effort in the California tournament.

"They did a really good job of starting well, and working the right plays. They played very solid, very basic doubles," the 8th-year coach said.

"I am very proud of both of them," Macdonald added. "This is the third year of their partnership and they have very steadily gotten better. The way they finished last year really set them up for this season. They complement each other very well."

In getting to the Riviera final, a big hurdle the women cleared was getting past a Georgia pair in the quarterfinals. Last year, Agata Cioroch and Lori Grey defeated Riske and Tsoubanos twice. In their first match-up this year, the Commodores struck back.

"I don't think they took us for much of a threat," Riske said of the quarterfinal match, in which she and Tsoubanos won convincingly, 8-1.

"I think we went after it more," Tsoubanos agreed. "They came out a little bit flat and they played as if they had something to lose."

Opposites Do Attract

More than one might think, doubles tennis is a much different game than singles. Taking two great singles players and making them a doubles team does not necessarily equate to success.

"It's hard to match up two people who play the same way," Riske offered. "You can, but it doesn't always work out."

While both Riske and Tsoubanos are established singles players, it is their different playing styles and strengths which make them a top doubles team.

Tsoubanos is the natural doubles player, the quick-handed aggressor at the net who loves the quick action and high intensity of doubles.

"I would much rather end the point. I'm just more risky in that regard," the junior from St. Louis, Missouri admitted. "It's not always the smart thing to do, but that is what gets me going. It's what comes natural to me."

"Aleke has been a very good doubles player her whole life," coach Macdonald said. "She is one of the most naturally gifted doubles players around here. She has really good hands, very good instincts, and she gets the ball back as well as anyone."

"I've always liked playing at the net, so doubles is more fun for me," Tsoubanos added. "And I like having a teammate out there, working together, interacting."

For Riske, however, doubles was not her strong suit when she came to Vanderbilt. She capped off a stellar career in Juniors tennis with an Under-18 National Grass Court Championship, and not surprisingly, Riske's focus was on singles when she arrived on campus her freshman year.

"Doubles is not a game stressed that much in Juniors, at least it wasn't for me," the senior from McMurray, Pennsylvania admitted. "I didn't like doubles that much, mainly because I wasn't that good at it."

"During her first year, Sarah was not a good doubles player," Macdonald had to admit. "But she has become a really good doubles player and she has improved every year since."

To be sure, as the two have improved each year, Riske can't help but acknowledge a change in attitude towards doubles.

"It has become more fun over the years and having great coaches makes it a lot easier for us," Riske said. "But if I was a freshman knowing that I was going to win a doubles championship my senior year, knowing how I played doubles and knowing what I thought about doubles, I wouldn't have believed it."

Does all this doubles success mean Riske now prefers it over singles? Maybe, maybe not.

"I've always liked singles more, but we've had so much success, it's hard not to start liking doubles a little more," Riske said. "There's a lot more energy and a lot more intensity in doubles, but I don't think I could ever give up singles. So maybe it's a tie."

Learning to be a Team

Macdonald believes that the key to success for any doubles team lies in their ability to establish good communication.

"You have to develop patterns, and you have to learn how to communicate and get through adversity together," he said. "You learn when to leave someone alone, when to speak up and help get them going. It's like a good basketball team: you always know where the other person is."

Over the past three years, it is obvious that Riske and Tsoubanos have established rapport on the court. Macdonald realized it was there when the two were first paired during the 2000-2001 season.

When that season began, however, he wasn't so sure how it would play out. To a degree, he knew the type of player he had in Riske, who had done very well her freshman year, but he wasn't sure about Tsoubanos.

"Aleke was a little more of a question mark, in some ways. She did not have a tremendous Junior career in singles. It was solid, but it wasn't phenomenal," Macdonald recalled. "But she came in and just took off. Her first year, she was amazing. Once she was in a college environment where she was playing more and training more, she just came on."

And when that happened, the Riske/Tsoubanos team was set in stone.

"From their first year, Sarah and Aleke were good together," Macdonald said, recalling the 2000-01 campaign. "They were our #2 doubles team, and were ranked #15 or so in the country. They really developed well."

Prior to their tournament victory this fall, the pair's greatest success came last year during the 2001-02 season, when they earned All-American status after posting a 25-6 record. They advanced to the quarterfinals in the NCAA Championship doubles draw and when the dust had settled, Riske and Tsoubanos finished the year ranked #6 in the country.

Both players attribute their success as a doubles team to what they are able to offer each other on the court.

"I feel like Sarah is very good at getting us together, she is always there with positive energy," Tsoubanos said of her partner. "I feel like she's the one who gets me going, makes me stay on top of things. And I try to do the same thing for her."

"I think we complement each other really well," Riske added. "Aleke ends the point more, and I play straight-up more. I try to set her up as much as possible. She has more touch, more control, and the really quick hands."

Most importantly, Tsoubanos commented, is their ability to prepare for a match, to always be cognizant of their strengths.

"We want to make sure we are playing our game, staying together, not getting upset out there, and always communicating," Tsoubanos said.

Rankings and Expectations

Despite the rankings and recent attention from the title, all involved are quick to keep things in perspective.

"The rankings are great 'PR', because they are like a nice badge of honor," Macdonald said. "But it's also a trap, because you can start to think too much about it."

"If you go out there thinking about a ranking, playing not to lose, only bad things can happen," Riske added. "For me, just focusing on getting better is what works best."

It is not just Riske and Tsoubanos who have impressive rankings, however. After finishing as the national runner-up in 2001 and having another solid season last year, the team itself is a top contender for this year's team championship.

"I think it's an honor," Tsoubanos said when asked about the team's preseason ranking, "but at the same time, there is a huge responsibility that comes with it, because I know that's something we would all like to maintain."

In the coming weeks, the team has a fall SEC tournament in November. After that, the attention turns towards the spring season.

Tsoubanos and Riske will be competing in both doubles and singles. Riske returns as the #1 singles player for the Commodores, and according to Macdonald, the senior can be an even better singles player than she is in doubles.

"Sarah's very self-motivated, very much a self-starter," Macdonald said of his #1 singles player, adding that her best tennis may be when she is in her mid-twenties at the professional level. "She can be a top 100 tour player, see the world, make some money, and play in the Grand Slams."

Expectations for the 2002-03 season are high, to say the least. Having established themselves as a legitimate national title contender, the Vanderbilt women's tennis team has their sights set on the spring NCAA championships.

"The goal for them is to be in the hunt, be one of the best teams in the country in the spring, certainly by the time of NCAAs," Macdonald said.

"Knowing what it takes to get there, and looking at the competition that's out there, I think we can definitely win it in doubles," Riske added. "And I'd love to win it in singles, as well. I don't really want to think about anything else as a goal other than that."

Riske's three-year partner summed it up perfectly.

"If we did anything other than work hard and go after the doubles championship, we would be selling ourselves short," Tsoubanos said.



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