North Texas' Yin Yang
Differences Attract For Mean Green's Undefeated No. 1 Doubles Team
DENTON -- In Saturday's regular season finale at UT-Arlington, the Mean Green tennis team's No. 1 doubles team couldn't help but laugh.
The Mavericks had significantly cut into Maria Kononova and Tamuna Kutubidze's lead midway through. However, after a long rally that included the two switching sides multiple times, Kononova won the point by returning three consecutive rapid-fire shots in the frontcourt aimed at her.
When her third return volley was finally hit into the net by the UTA opponent, she turned to Kutubidze wide-eyed while grinning and then shrugged.
From that point on Kononova and Kutubidze cruised to a 6-4 win and improved their season record to 15-0. They are the first North Texas doubles team to finish a regular season undefeated and are on the verge of setting many more program records as just sophomores.
Even though they couldn't be any more different.
"They are our yin and yang," said North Texas head coach Sujay Lama. "They are different but the balance they bring each other works perfectly."
From February through early March, Kononova won nine consecutive singles matches. When the streak was snapped in a heated match against a ranked opponent, Kononova was soon after smiling with her teammates.
The Russia native has a go with the flow attitude. She is rarely demonstrative during matches unlike many of her competitors. So while the 5-foot-10 Kononova doesn't say much, she still frustrates her opponents to even the point of crying sometimes.
"I think it's just who I am as a person," Kononova said about her mild manner playing style. "I knew I was eventually going to lose again so it was important to look at the big picture."
"I of course want to compete and beat everybody but I guess I just show it differently than Tamuna," she added.
A perfectionist with every detail, it doesn't matter the score Kutubidze will show frustration at any moment at any aspect of a match. Her stress is exhibited through every pore and is felt even by spectators.
Although a more petite frame than Kononova, the Georgian is one of the hardest hitters on the team and when she slams a winner past the opposition she often backs it up with a roar that can change the momentum of a match.
"I play the game with a lot of passion," Kutubidze said with a smile. " How I show passion is with a lot of emotion."
When they're on the court together in doubles, their passion is shown with an almost coordinated grace.
Often speaking in Russian, a one-syllable word from one to the other is all it takes for it to form.
It has emotion but it's not stressful.
"Their games compliment each other tremendously," Lama said. "They've put in many hours the past couple of years in practice and built a relationship that helps a lot when they play together."
Playing with a partner in general was a new concept for Kononova and Kutubidze when they first arrived in Denton. Neither had much if any experience playing doubles growing up.
As freshmen, the two were paired together from the beginning and had relative success. However, when a few losses started to pile up in the fall Lama was about ready to pull the plug on the duo. But after associate head coach Jeff Hammond pleaded to keep them together and the two coaches talked it over, Kononova and Kutubidze remained partners.
They ended their freshmen year with a 10-5 record at the No. 1 position. Their .667 winning percentage that year tied for seventh best in program history for a single-season.
"It usually takes people a long time to get as comfortable as we are playing with each other but we just clicked," Kutubidze said. "We trust, believe and are confident in one another and I think that's very important."
The team's turning point was this past October at the Riviera/ITA Women's All-American Championships when the two defeated a Oklahoma State team that was the nation's No. 37 ranked doubles team.
"That gave us a lot of confidence and showed us how good we can be if we keep working hard," Kononova said.
A couple weeks later on October 23, Kononova and Kutubidze -- an eight seed -- lost in the semifinals of the ITA Texas Regional. They were just the second North Texas doubles team to reach the tournament's semifinal round. The Baylor team they lost to that late October day began the season ranked No. 15 in the country.
Kononova and Kutubidze haven't lost since.
"We don't want to lose," Kutubidze said. "We like winning too much."
This summer, Kononova and Kutubidze plan on traveling to Georgia to play in tournaments to earn higher international rankings. Both players have goals of playing professionally once they graduate, which is one of the few things they do share in common.
For the time being, though, the duo has no plans on losing and has the goal of winning a Conference USA title.
Their 15 match-winning streak is already a program record. Since college tennis moved to a spring season in 1981, no North Texas team has won more than 16 doubles matches in a season and no team with more than 10 played doubles matches has finished with a better winning percentage than .833. Furthermore, when including fall matches, their 37 wins are second all-time at North Texas.
"The sky is the limit for these girls if they keep working hard and stay focused," said Lama who has coached several top 20 ranked WTA players.
As Kononova turned to Kutubidze and shrugged her shoulder out of disbelief following her three straight return vollies at UTA, the two laughed, hi-fived each other and just shook their heads.
"Sometimes we surprise ourselves," Kutubidze said. "You never know what to expect each match. All I know is she will be next to me and we'll face whatever comes our way and we're confident we can beat anyone together."
Kononova, Kutubidze and the North Texas tennis team hosts the 2017 C-USA Championship starting Thursday at the Waranch Tennis Complex