A year ago, the Manhattan High girls’ tennis team sent two of its six varsity players to the state tournament.
Kristen Fraley and Cathy Lei both made it to state as singles players, where they finished a combined 2-4 against the state’s toughest competition. Both underclassmen returned to the team this year planning for better results once they returned to state.
But in a season that’s loaded with talent at the top of the singles’ bracket, Manhattan coach Joyce Allen decided to try something different.
She paired the two and asked them to play doubles.
Initially, there was some resistance. Doubles is a totally different game than singles. Both would have to learn to not only play to the strengths of their partner, but to improve their skills at the net. But the results were encouraging the whole way. The pair finished the year 21-5 and won the school’s first regional title in four years.
“I think people think of them as singles players playing doubles, but that’s not what they are,” Allen said. “They might have been for half the season, but at some point they became doubles players. When you watch them hit, they’re solid.”
That much was evident last Saturday, when Fraley and Lei beat both of Washburn Rural’s doubles pairs to win the Topeka regional. The matches were hard-fought and the wins didn’t come easy, but the victories showed Allen that the two have what it takes to make noise at state this weekend.
“Their regional performance — that says to me that they’re in that elite category,” Allen said. “We had to beat both Rural teams. And they’re the only team in Class 6A to take all six to state.”
Part of the fun for Fraley and Lei is the general lack of upsets in high school tennis. Especially by the end of the season, coaches have a pretty good handle on who will win each match. If you earn the No. 3 seed, you’re typically the third-best team.
Needless to say, Fraley and Lei are happy to disrupt the status quo. Just mention last Saturday in Topeka, and both Lei and Fraley’s eyes light up.
“That was like the greatest day of my life,” Lei said. “It just felt so good to beat them. I think it felt even better because I didn’t know that we could.”
“It was really exciting,” she said. “We lost to both of the Rural teams before, so to beat them both in one day was really exciting. Obviously, winning regionals puts us in the best position we can for state.”
Part of Fraley and Lei’s improvement over the course of the season has come from adapting to the way doubles is played.
“It’s a lot more adjustment in your movement,” Lei said. “You’re not just running to get there, you’re running with a purpose. It’s a lot more strategical.”
Fraley said she had to learn to set her partner up.
“Doubles is definitely a completely different game,” Fraley said. “It’s all about setting your partner up instead of hitting the best shot to win the point. It’s getting the shot for your partner to hit.”
With a regional win, the pair will be one of four top seeds at the state tournament beginning Friday at Maize South High School in Wichita. Among the top four seeds, the Manhattan pair will likely get either a three or a four, which is likely to impact how far they go in the tournament.
“We aren’t probably going to be seeded ahead of the Kansas City or even the Lawrence regional with the Olathe East team,” Allen said. “But if we can get ahead of the Garden City regional, that would be nice.”
Last year, the two practiced against each other during the week between regionals and state. This season, they need others to play against.
“We’ve been setting up matches with as many different people as we can,” Fraley said, “trying to get as wide a variety of players as we can.”
Lei said the two have also been working on strategy.
“Some days we just talk strategy and some of the mental side of things,” she said. “That’s such a big part of doubles.”
Fraley and Lei also have the element of surprise on their side. Nobody outside the Topeka regional knows much about them.
Allen said she thinks the two will be able to hold their own at state because of their experience playing singles.
“They both have exceptional ground strokes,” she said. “If you’re going to hang with the big dogs, you’ve got to have a ground stroke. The reason the lower-seeded players have a difficult time is because it’s tough to hang in when you get into hitting cross-court ground strokes, corner to corner, that type of thing.
“Also in their favor is they’re both lefties. Consequently, when people see their serves, they’re taken aback, because the ball bounces differently from lefties. It comes at you different.”