By Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Athletics
Hadley Berg and Paige Cline practically grew up together.
They both went to Tamiscal High School in Northern California and traveled the junior tennis circuit, practicing together and occasionally squaring off in junior tournaments. They were both five-star recruits and among the best junior players in the nation.
So when they both arrived at the University of South Carolina, it seemed only natural to pair them together as one of the Gamecocks' top doubles teams.
Head coach Kevin Epley wasn't so sure.
"We came in with Kevin saying I will never, ever put you two together," Berg said.
"I think he thought we were too close, too good a friends to play doubles together," Cline added. "But I guess … he was wrong."
A year ago, Berg, a sophomore then, and Cline, a freshman, formed one of the best doubles teams in the nation, compiling a 14-8 record overall with seven wins over nationally ranked opponents. Their play helped lead South Carolina to the NCAA Tournament and they finished ranked No. 20 in the nation in doubles.
After beating a pair of top-10 teams to reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Doubles Championship, they were named All-Americans — the first Gamecock women to earn that honor since 1994 and just the fourth and fifth women's tennis All-Americans in school history.
Yes, Berg and Cline proved that Epley's initial instinct might have been wrong.
"At first, when we started playing together, Kevin was convinced that we wouldn't be together. We couldn't win a practice match to save our lives," Berg said. "But the first time he threw us together in a match, we ended up doing pretty well. The fact that we know each other so well makes it a really good balance for both of us."
Flash forward to this season, and things have changed.
Berg and Cline, the All-Americans from 2015-2016, have struggled as South Carolina has had a problem securing doubles points all season. The Gamecocks, 18-7 and 9-6 in the SEC, have won the doubles point in only 13 of 25 matches. They have had eight Duel matches in which they didn't win a doubles line at all, including a late-season shutout against Kentucky.
Instead, their strength has been singles, with Ingrid Gamarra Martins (ranked 46th nationally) and Mia Horvit (52nd) excelling at 1 and 2 singles and Berg, Silvia Chinellato and Brigit Folland compiling sterling records at lines 4, 5 and 6.
But getting the doubles lines back in form could be a huge key during the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks play host to North Florida at Carolina Tennis Center Friday at 1 p.m., with the winner playing either Wake Forest or Texas on Saturday.
Epley, a former professional coach who excelled with doubles teams on the WTA, is not used to seeing his doubles pairs struggle so.
"Doubles has always been something that we have focused on. It just so happens that this year, of all the years I've coached, this is probably been the year when we have lost the most doubles points," he said. "It has been tough. We haven't found the right combinations, had some issues with some execution, and when you play to 6 no-ad games, it can get away from you quickly. You start losing a few and you lose confidence."
Particularly troubling has been Berg and Cline, the All-Americans who shined last year. They finished the regular season at 10-9, 5-7 in Dual matches and just 3-4 in the SEC. They struggled so badly that Epley broke up the duo, pairing Berg with a variety of players and putting Cline with Folland, a senior.
"They are interesting," Epley says. "They are not a team that practices well together, and they are streaky. Sometimes they don't play real well, and other times they are playing great."
Berg and Cline finished strong, however, winning three of their last six matches, including impressive conference wins against Florida and Kentucky. They are looking to recapture their form heading into the NCAA Regionals.
"I think we both know what we're capable of, and I think that's the thing that holds us together," Berg said. "We saw a glimpse of that last season. So it's just more about believing in ourselves and trusting it and setting ourselves up for tournament time, because we know we can do big things."
The win over Kentucky was particularly encouraging. Playing a duo that reached the finals of the NCAA Doubles Championship last year and was 29-2 this season, Berg and Cline crushed them, winning 6-1 and losing only five points. The next day, they took a strong Vanderbilt team to match point before losing 6-4.
"When they are firing on all cylinders, they are very, very good," Epley said. "We just have to make sure they are in their rhythm and making their first services, hitting their returns and crossing and putting the pressure on the opponents.
"Sometimes they get a little bit complacent. They just have to realize what their strengths are and attack. I think when the two of them are in that mindset, they just come at you and they hit you hard and it's tough to deal with."
Berg believes breaking the duo up for a few weeks near the end of the season may have helped them regain their chemistry.
"I think the change of energy and the change in dynamic definitely worked to our benefit a little bit, because our first match back we had a big win and played great," she said. "I think everyone on this team has the ability to play doubles, so any doubles team he puts together is going to be pretty successful, but I definitely think that worked to our benefit this season."
Cline believes the two are starting to turn things around and are ready to give their team a big lift in the NCAA Tournament, hopefully reaching their goal of winning the Columbia Region and advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16.
"I think this season is almost a little similar to last season," she said. "At the beginning of last season and this season, we were playing pretty well and getting some big wins, and then there was this kind of slump in the middle of the season where things just weren't really going our way.
"I think as we proved last year, we have the ability to turn it around when it matters. Around NCAA time, we have the ability to just pick it up and get ourselves together."