Girls Tennis: Singles play stands out for Riverhead

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Charlotte Palmer is one of five singles players who have been the strength of the Riverhead team.

The pendulum is swinging the other way now.

Last season the Riverhead High School girls tennis team won most of its match points in doubles. But for an explanation as to why the Blue Waves are doing as well as they are this year, one need look no further than their singles lineup.

Singles has been Riverhead’s strength and a big reason why it has won eight of its first 12 matches in Suffolk County League VIII prior to a 6-1 non-league loss to the visiting William Floyd Colonials on Friday.

The numbers don’t lie. Sandra Ruttkayova has an 8-2 singles record. Meyling Zuniga (8-6), Charlotte Palmer (6-5), Lydia Keiffert (9-4) and Alex Quintana (9-4) also held winning records through Friday’s match.

“All five of them, yeah, they’re very steady players and they play with a lot of heart and they don’t give up,” said Riverhead Coach Jerry Duvall.

Riverhead’s singles players may have themselves to thank for their success. With five players vying for four singles positions, the competition in practice matches is keen. Duvall said Zuniga, Palmer and Keiffert “have been playing just a breath apart the whole year.”

BOB LIEPA PHOTO | Riverhead sophomore Lydia Keiffert, who was a doubles player last season, has a 9-4 singles record.

Competition generally makes for better players, and keeps them on their toes.

“Since we’re so close, you think, ‘I may not have this position next time because there’s someone not far behind me,’ so I have to do really well and prove that I’m meant for this position,” said Palmer, a junior with a level, smooth stroke.

Two of Riverhead’s singles players, Keiffert and Palmer, came from the doubles side of last year’s team. Those two primarily played second doubles, became friends and went 9-2.

Doubles and singles are not the same game. Keiffert, a sophomore, discovered that soon enough.

“Doubles is so different just because it’s more fun than stressful, less pressure,” she said. “Singles is so tough. I remember in the beginning of the season I was struggling to get [the No. 4 singles slot]. Now I’m at 2.”

The added pressure is fine with Keiffert, though. “I love the pressure, in a way, it being all on me,” she said.

In Riverhead’s final match last year, Duvall put Keiffert in the fourth singles slot for a match against the Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats. Keiffert won a three-setter and made her coach a believer.

“That showed me there that she could handle it,” Duvall said. “She’s got a lot of heart.”

Although Ruttkayova usually plays first singles, the lineup has seen a good deal of fluidity. For example, through Friday, Palmer has played first singles, second singles, third singles and first doubles this season. Keiffert has played second singles, third singles, fourth singles and first doubles.

Players have shown improvement.

Palmer has played throughout the off-season, hitting a thousand balls a practice session. “It really helped my forehand,” she said. “It just became second nature.”

Quintana had been given the nickname “The Backboard” because of her ability to return shots. Well, “The Backboard” can do more than just return shots now. The junior has developed a good forehand, Duvall said, and can make shots of her own.

But the Blue Waves had their work cut out for them on Friday by William Floyd, which is making a run at the League VII championship. In all six of the individual matches that William Floyd won, Riverhead did not take more than two games.

Chelsea Bona was a 6-0, 6-0 winner over fellow senior Zuniga in a first singles match that was a lob-fest. The two players, with similar playing styles, played patiently, but Bona was more consistent and took advantage of Zuniga’s 32 unforced errors. Bona did not have a double fault and made 10 unforced errors.

“That’s the key to every match, try to cut down your unforced errors, try to be consistent, try to get your serves in,” said William Floyd Coach Dave Pia, whose team won for the 10th time in 12 matches. “The main thing is keeping your focus for these matches. … The person who maintains better focus throughout the match usually wins.”

More focus came from Christina Cali, a 6-0, 6-1 winner over Palmer, and Emily Vigliotta, a 6-0, 6-2 victor over Keiffert.

All three doubles matches went William Floyd’s way. Kelsey Henn and Devin Messina beat Yeugeniya Komzyuk and Ruttkayova, 6-0, 6-1; Kelsi Henn and Antonette Viglione scored a 6-2, 6-0 result against Milena Chrzanowska and Juana Dobrzynski; and Sydney Cerase and Alison Collins downed Brittney Martens and Nicole Treadwell, 6-2, 6-0.

The final match of the day was the most competitive — and the longest. Quintana prevailed, 6-3, 7-6 (9-7), over Erika Hesselbirg, in a fourth singles contest that took about two and a half hours to complete.

So, yes, singles play has improved for Riverhead, but Duvall’s work is not done. He said, “I’ve been looking for those elusive doubles wins.”

[email protected]