2023 NCAA Championships: After team heartbreak, Rajecki stuns No. 1 Crawley
After the North Carolina State University Wolfpack lost Saturday's NCAA Division I women's team final to the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, 4-1, junior Amelia Rajecki said her team was "heartbroken," despite making history for the program in the process with a first-ever berth in the national final.
On Wednesday in the individual championships, the Briton got a measure of revenge. Unseeded Rajecki scored the biggest upset of the women's singles event so far with a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 win over the tournament's No. 1 seed, the Tar Heels' Fiona Crawley.
"I've always wanted to play Fiona," she said afterwards. "We've played UNC so many times and I've never had the chance to play her. She had a great fall, she had a great spring. She's had great matches against us, so I really wanted to have the chance to play her. I thought I played well. I had a bit of a shaky second set, but I'm playing a lot of tennis, so it happens, but it was a great match.
"That team final, we were all heartbroken, but I think also, we could take away that we had a great season. I think it gave us more confidence actually going forward that we can do this. Any time we play Carolina, it's always a good match, but I definitely got some revenge in this one."
A lynchpin for her team's success this year, Rajecki is also in the midst of a historic individual season for the ACC champions, and is competing in the season-ending singles championships for the first time. (She qualified for the doubles tournament last year.) Her win against Crawley was her 39th win of the season, a continuing program record. The prior best was 33 by Sanaa Bhambri in 2011.
The 20-year-old from Nottingham was primarily the Wolfpack's No. 3 singles player this year, and was No. 26 in the most recent national rankings. Entering Wednesday's tilt, her best win by ranking was over Crawley's teammate Carson Tanguilig in the ACC final on April 23; Tanguilig was ranked No. 21 at the time.
"This is like my first year ranked, so playing these types of players, I've never really had this opportunity," she said. "I think the individual tournament is always tough, especially if you do well in the team event. You do have to play a lot of tennis. Mentally and physically, it is challenging. But I think just having that recovery every day, especially being with your team, I have been very fortunate to have a very good team around me. I think [it's about] just making sure you take care of yourself. I really enjoy it."
Under Orlando's noon sun, Rajecki raced out of the gates en route to handing Crawley just her third loss of the year: She broke serve to start the match and won five straight games to capture the first set. She won the last three games of the final set, too, and punctuated the win with an ace.
"Our team as a whole, we're very aggressive and we play a lot of dictating tennis," she said. "I think I just tried to do that, tried to be on the front foot. I think when I didn't go my way, I was too passive. I know [NC State head coach] Simon [Earnshaw] told me that a lot. I just tried to play my game, be aggressive, stay inside the blue. It's tough. She is a great competitor. She plays every point. You just have to be on it, and it is tough when you're tired, to do that. But yeah, I think dictating the points and making sure I played my tennis [was key]."
Already an All-American by virtue of the 6-3, 6-4 win over Princeton's Daria Frayman that put her in the last 16, Rajecki was one of three unseeded players to score a Top-8 upset and reach the quarterfinals. Also advancing was Stanford's Angelica Blake, who was a 6-4, 7-6(0) winner over No. 3 seed Lea Ma from the University of Georgia; and Oklahoma's Layne Sleeth, who was a 3-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(2) winner over No. 6 seed Chloe Beck from Duke. USC's Maddy Sieg, a No. 9-16 seed, beat No. 4 seed Dasha Vidamova, also from Georgia, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Opportunity knocks, but Rajecki isn't looking too far ahead—even though she concedes it's tempting.
"I think it's very easy to," she said with a laugh. "I'm going to take it day by day, because it is very challenging, but I have nothing to lose at this point. I think I've gained a lot of experience here, especially for next year. I'm just trying to see how far I can go, how far my body can stay one piece, but I think going all the way would be a great goal."