2023 NCAA Championships: Comeback queen Ansari saves match points in victory again
A notice to the women left in the field at the 2023 NCAA Division I Championships: If you get to match point on Auburn University senior Carolyn Ansari, you better close her out. Otherwise, she's got you right where she wants you.
With a 2-6, 7-6(6), 6-3 upset Tuesday of No. 5 seed, the University of Miami's Alexa Noel, Ansari escaped with her second victory in as many matches from match point down to reach the Round of 16. Less than 24 hours earlier on Monday, she also came back from 5-3 down in the final set of a 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) triumph over Casie Wooten of Wake Forest University—a match that was moved indoors due to rain—and stared down defeat at a deciding point in the 10th game of the decider.
"I think I become more decisive when I'm down," she said after beating Noel." I'm like, 'Alright, you have nothing to lose now. Just go for it, see it, hit it,' and that's what I did. Luckily, it went my way. Yesterday was kind of the same, too. I just stick to what feels good."
2019 junior Wimbledon finalist Noel, a redshirt sophomore at Miami who was the Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Year in the 2020-21 season at the University of Iowa before transferring to Coral Gables this season, led 6-2, 5-4, and 40-15 on serve before Ansari won three straight points to break and stay in the match.
Later, after Noel pulled the tiebreak to 6-6 from 6-4 behind, she double-faulted on Ansari's third set point.
"It was an emotional rollercoaster," Ansari, ranked No. 23 in the country, said. "I lost the first set pretty easily. I didn't break serve. My coach helped me through the service games and I was like, 'OK, I know what to do.' After that, I sunk into the match more. I just took it one point at a time, tried to do whatever I could to hurt her, and I stuck to it.
"It was hard closing that out. She gave a push [at the end] and I lost two games really easily. The clouds were coming in, so I was like, 'You can't go inside [again] now,' and I just tried to stick to aggressive tennis."
Ansari also pointed to the fact she got more comfortable with Noel's unique playing style—the one-time world No. 4 in juniors possesses a wicked slice backhand but can also hit with topspin—as the match wore on.
"At the beginning, she would slice it, and I kind of knew that," she said. "But there was one point she actually started hitting it, and I was like, 'Huh?' And then I just kind of stuck to it, opened the court and then attacked to get her running to the forehand. When I was locked in, I just had that 'see it, hit it' mindset, for sure."
Whatever happens for her over the duration of the tournament, back-to-back dramatic triumphs are a memorable exclamation point on the Greensboro, N.C. native's Tiger career. Her accolades at Auburn have included two All-SEC First Team selections both this season and last, as well as All-SEC Second Team and All-Newcomer Team honors in 2021.
After the Tigers were upset in the second round of the SEC tournament by Ole Miss, a team that entered the postseason with a losing record, their effort as an at-large selection to the team championships fell short of a ticket to Orlando: Auburn was beaten in the Super Regional in Raleigh. That result, though, did tie the best showing for the team in school history.
However, there is plenty of War Eagle spirit to be found on the USTA National Campus: Ansari's teammate and Auburn's No. 1 singles player, junior Ariana Arseneault, also booked a spot in the last 16 with a 6-3, 6-4 win later Tuesday over Celia Belle-Mohr of Vanderbilt, and the two also qualified for the doubles tournament.
"It means a lot," Ansari said. "It's something I've really strived to do ever since I went to college. I wasn't recruited super hard, and coach [Caroline] Lilley really invested in me and believed in me. She still does and it shows; she was there, every point, pumping me up. I wouldn't be here without her."
Ansari will next face No. 9-16 seed Carol Lee of Georgia Tech University, who was a 6-3, 6-2 winner over Elza Tomase from the University of Tennessee.