COLUMBIA — Two days after the Drake Invitational, the first tournament of the season, Missouri tennis coach Blake Starkey decided to break up his No. 1 doubles team. Senior Chrissy Svetlic, instead of playing with last year’s partner sophomore Kaitlin Dunham, would compete in the next tournament, the Maryland Invitational, with freshman Mallory Weber.
“What you try to do as a coach is to put together pairings that make sense,” Starkey said. “It seemed apparent to me early on that I wanted to give them a shot. They both play very different, but they have some things where I thought they could play well off of each other. So if you kind of have that hunch, you just put them together and let them go. It just makes sense.”
The switch seemed odd considering there were only 12 days before the Maryland Invitational, and Svetlic and Weber had never played with each other competitively. Their first opportunity to play together was a practice match on the first day of the tournament. Svetlic and Weber had a bye in the first-round and decided to play Miami’s (Ohio) doubles team of Megan Marzolf and Britt Larsonn, who also had a first-round bye. They lost the practice match 8-3.
“Oh no, it was terrible,” Svetlic said. “We knew it really couldn’t get worse than how we were playing. And also we knew there wasn’t a lot of pressure because nobody expected us to do well not having played together.”
But Svetlic and Weber did play well together. In their first competitive match, they defeated the No. 47 doubles team in the nation, Auburn’s Fani Chifchieva and Whitney Chappell, and then defeated Marzolf and Larsonn in the semifinals.
“They end up playing the team that they played and beat them,” assistant coach Blake Edwards said. “And they haven’t looked back since.”
Svetlic and Weber have been the only bright spot for the Tigers this season, claiming two doubles titles in the four tournaments the Tigers have played. Also, in the Drake Invitational, before being paired with Svetlic, Weber won a doubles title with freshman Kaitlyn Ritchie and a singles title.
“I’m pretty pleased with what they’ve done up to this point,” Starkey said. “But we certainly have a lot of challenges coming up and they are certainly going to get tested a lot more. But I do think they’re starting to figure out how each other plays.”
Starkey, in his nine years as coach, has become the program’s all-time wins leader. He said the reason he paired Svetlic and Weber together was their contrasting styles.
“Chrissy kind of likes to stand back and spank the ball from the baseline, whereas Mallory is a kid who likes to hit it once and come right at you,” Starkey said. “I’ve been here long enough, and one thing I’ve always believed in doubles, when you got people with contrasting styles of play, you put them together, and if you leave them alone long enough, they’ll figure it out. So what we try to do is just give them a scheme.”
The scheme is the I-formation, which Starkey has used sparingly in the past but has now implemented as the Tigers main doubles formation. He chose to utilize the I-formation after seeing Auburn succeed with it during the Maryland Invitational.
“I had always talked with Tim (Gray, Auburn’s coach) about it and we actually played them at the Maryland Invitational,” Starkey said. “I saw it firsthand and I was impressed with it. That was the first time I saw somebody just blatantly go almost every point from the I-formation and it worked.”
While serving, the I-formation calls for players to stand near the center of the court, with one player behind the serving line and one player near the net. The traditional doubles formation consists of players standing at opposite sidelines, with a wide distance between them. Not many teams run the I-formation, Starkey says, so therefore opposing players don’t know how to play against it.
“It’s unpredictable,” Starkey said. “It’s all predicated on surprise.”
Weber, who has played competitively since she was 12, says she has never played the I-formation and that it’s a reason for her and Svetlic’s success this season.
“It’s worked out really well,” she said. “It’s definitely something different, so it kind of throws off our opponent for a little bit. It’s given us a lot more easy put away shots, whereas in regular formation we have had to work harder to get shots to put away.”
“Not many teams do it, so I think it’s hard to return against,” she said. “It puts more pressure on the returner to hit it to a certain part of the court, which results in them missing half the time.”
Weber says one advantage of the pairing is Svetlic’s experience. Svetlic has played No. 1 doubles for the Tigers the past two years. Also, last season with junior Raquel Wagner, Svetlic defeated Vanja Corovic and Marija Milic of Texas, the No. 1 doubles team in the nation.
“Chrissy has been really helpful,” Weber said. “She’s been through all this before. Her experience with everything helps me.”
The success of Svetlic and Weber makes Starkey mention former Tigers Katka Sevcikove and Urska Juric, players who were named to the Big 12 Conference Women’s 10th Anniversary Team and twice won the Big 12 doubles championship. He admits that Svetlic and Weber have not achieved the same amount of accolades, but can they be as good as Sevcikove and Juric?
“Maybe.” Starkey said.