By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In college tennis, a team’s whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Consider the University of Virginia women’s squad. Head coach Sara O’Leary may not have a player as dominant as, say, a Danielle Collins or an Emma Navarro at the top of her singles lineup, but collectively the Cavaliers are putting together one of the best seasons in program history.

“We understand that at the end of the day, it’s a unit and we’re a team,” sophomore Annabelle Xu said after fifth-seeded UVA advanced to the NCAA tournament’s third round Sunday with a 4-0 victory over Princeton on the indoor courts at the Boar’s Head Resort.

“Our team is so deep,” Xu said. “I think that’s been one of our biggest strengths all season, knowing that every time we step on the court, every single person at every spot has a chance to win.”

In the NCAA tournament, as in the regular season, teams play dual matches in which seven points are at stake. The six singles matches are worth one point apiece, and the team that wins two of the three doubles matches earns another point.

“Every spot is worth the same,” O’Leary said. “We have confidence in everyone we put out there, and I think they all believe in themselves and they believe in each other. I also think Hibah [Shaikh] has done an amazing job going from playing four, five and six [earlier in her career] to stepping up and pretty much playing number one almost our entire season and being very successful at that position.”

In the Sweet Sixteen, Virginia (24-4) will host unseeded Vanderbilt (14-10) on Saturday at the Boar’s Head. Vandy advanced by upsetting No. 12 seed Ohio State 4-3 on Sunday.

Weather permitting, the third-round match will be played outdoors at the Virginia Tennis Facility.

“Hopefully it’s outside,” Xu said, “but I’m just really happy to be back home. It doesn’t really change anything for us whether we’re inside or outside. At home either way, it’s special.”

Mother Nature did not cooperate this weekend, and the Wahoos played indoors twice, beating LIU 4-0 on Saturday and then blanking Princeton on Sunday. The Tigers (16-9), coming off a first-round upset of Washington, battled gamely throughout, but Virginia matched their energy.

“One thing we’ve been talking about all season is that it doesn’t matter who’s across the net, we’ve got to take care of ourselves, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that, especially here at the end,” said O’Leary, who’s in her eighth season at UVA.

“Every match is so important. It doesn’t matter who’s across the net. It’s more about what we’re doing on our side and staying disciplined and staying focused. And that’s what they did today.”

Melodie Collard

Three Cavaliers received invitations last month to the NCAA individual championships, which start May 20 in Stillwater, Okla.: senior Hibah Shaikh in singles and juniors Elaine Chervinsky and Melodie Collard in doubles.

At No. 1 doubles, Chervinsky and Collard jump-started the Cavaliers against Princeton, winning 6-0 in a match that took only 20 minutes. Shaikh and graduate student Natasha Subhash won their match at No. 2 doubles about 10 minutes later, putting the Hoos ahead to stay.

“It’s really easier to go [into singles] winning 1-up than losing [1-0],” Collard said. “Even though I believe in all of my teammates, having the 1-0 lead is really great, and we’ve worked a lot on doubles.”

Xu said: “We really try to focus on being present right from the beginning, because I think in bigger matches [the doubles point] could make the difference. As much as it’s nice to win all four singles, I think it’s obviously better to go in with the peace of mind that you only have to win three matches.”

In singles, Collard finished first at No. 6, and then Xu won at No. 2 to push the Hoos’ lead to 3-0. At that point, with three Cavaliers leading their matches, the biggest question was which one would clinch first.

That honor went to senior Sara Ziodato. Her victory at No. 4 sent the Hoos to the NCAA tournament’s third round for the fourth straight season. A year ago, the Hoos had to play on the road in the Sweet Sixteen—they lost at Michigan—and they’re thrilled to have another home match this season.

“Last year we didn’t get to play the round of 16 at home and I was a little bit bummed out,” Xu said. “I wanted one more chance at home. So I’m really happy.”

So is O’Leary. “We have such great support from our fans and the community, and we’d love to see as many people out for that match as possible,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll be outdoors, but either way, we’re just really excited to be able to have our our fans come out and support us. It’s such a great environment, being able to play at home, so we’re really excited.”

For the players honored in a Senior Day ceremony last month—Subhash, Shaikh and Ziodato—it will be their final home match as Cavaliers. Subhash, who’s in her fifth year in the program, missed the LIU match with an illness, but she was back in the lineup Sunday.

“She was a little sick, but she’s doing better,” O’Leary said. “I wouldn’t say she was 100 percent, but she wanted to play. These are some of her last matches here. So I think she was really excited to get out there, and I’m just proud of the effort that she put in not feeling 100 percent.”

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Annabelle Xu