UNT doubles team

Saki Oyama, left, and Lucie Devier play No. 1 doubles for North Texas — a decision made late in the season by coach Sujay Lama. Both won national doubles championships in their home countries and have quickly jelled to form a potent team UNT will lean on this week while hosting the Conference USA tournament at Waranch Tennis Complex.

Sujay Lama had good reason to suspect Lucie Devier and Saki Oyama would make a pretty good doubles team when the pair arrived at North Texas this year.

Devier won a national doubles title in France before coming to America to play college tennis. Oyama was a national doubles champion in Japan.

Those suspicions were confirmed over the last few weeks when Lama decided to pair his top two doubles players for the first time since their lone match together back in the fall.

The two immediately pulled off one of UNT’s biggest wins of the season by taking down Vera Ploner and Martina Okalova on April 3. Tulsa’s top doubles team was ranked No. 26 nationally when UNT pulled out a 6-4 win.

“You could see what they are capable of,” Lama said. “That is a really good and experienced team. They were down, solved their problems in the match and came back to win. This has the makings of a very special team.”

Devier and Oyama will have another opportunity to show that is the case this week during the Conference USA tournament. UNT is hosting the 14-team event that begins Thursday and runs through Sunday at Waranch Tennis Complex.

UNT is the No. 12 seed and will take on Florida Atlantic, the No. 5 seed, at noon Thursday in a first-round match.

The Mean Green are aiming to make an unexpected run through the event and will depend on Devier and Oyama to lead the way.

“I feel really good about this team,” Devier said. “We have worked hard all year and are like a family.”

Developing into a formidable team has been a challenge for UNT. The Mean Green have just six players available after one player opted out due to the COVID-19 pandemic and another was lost for the year due health issues.

UNT had to gut it up and find a way to persevere with just enough players to field a team.

“I take pride in the fact we were able to keep six players healthy and deal with tough losses while handling a COIVD year,” Lama said. “It feels like our best is yet to come.”

That feeling is based in no small part on the fact that UNT has finally arrived at a lineup it feels comfortable running out against anyone.

The pairing of Devier and Oyama at No. 1 doubles is a key reason that is the case.

They’ve won both of their matches since Lama paired them together and rose to No. 58 in the national rankings before dropping out.

“We have had good chemistry from the beginning,” Devier said. “Saki sets me up. She knows how to play doubles. I can move, fake and really be free to play my game. We love to play together and have good chemistry.”

Lama ran through a few combinations before arriving at the doubles lineup UNT will use in the conference tournament.

The longtime UNT coach’s first instinct was to pair Devier and Oyama with other players in the hope they would elevate the Mean Green’s doubles lineup overall.

“My goal was to see how we could be good collectively,” Lama said. “When we got a little stagnant, I felt like if we could make a dominant No. 1 team, it would help us.”

Devier and Oyama are showing signs they can be that kind of team becasue of the way they complement each other.

Lama called Devier one of the most aggressive players he has ever coached, a trait that is reflected in her personality. Oyama is more reserved and excels at playing the angles and knowing where to place the ball on the court.

The more the two have played together, the more they have jelled.

“When we first started playing together, I didn’t know a lot about how Lucie moved,” Oyama said. “The more we play together, the more comfortable I have become.”

The bond between Devier and Oyama has grown over the last few weeks.

“We have gotten to know each other and are able to talk during matches,” Devier said. “This is the first time I have felt really comfortable playing doubles with someone.”

Lama isn’t about to break up Devier and Oyama now that they have settled into a groove. Devier is a junior, while Oyama is a freshman.

Lama believes the two could earn a spot in the NCAA doubles championships, just like Maria Kononova and Tamuna Kutubidze did in the 2018-19 season. Kononova and Kutubidze are two of the best players in the history of UNT’s program.

Yulia Starodubsteva and Alesya Yakubovich of Old Dominion are the top-ranked doubles team in C-USA heading into this week’s tournament at No. 60 and have the best chance of qualifying for the NCAA doubles tournament. If Devier and Oyama don’t qualify this year, they could have another shot next season.

“Maria and Tamuna were top 20 in the nation at one point,” Lama said. “These two have as good of an understanding of doubles as they did, and they are more instinctive than Tamuna and Maria.

“They have that ‘it’ factor.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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