URBANA (WCIA) — From the time Asuka Kawai set foot in Atkins Tennis Center, you could find her on court one. She spent the majority of her freshman year as the number one, and played every match this season in the top spot.
“Well my mom told be to be the absolute one if you wanted to play one,” Kawai said. “So that’s been my mindset for sure.”
It’s been a long journey for the 44th ranked player in nation. She was born in Japan and moved to England when she was only six months old. After five years in the UK, her family moved back to Japan for another ten years. She eventually ended up in Palatine, Illinois for high school, where she committed to the Orange and Blue as a Top 20 recruit nationally.
“I try to represent as much as I can because I know people look up on me if I’m playing at one,” she said. “People look at my score and look at how I play and my attitude and everything so I try not to represent Illinois in a bad way. That’s what I’ve been focusing on a lot.”
Last year, she helped Illinois reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012. Now she has them back for their second appearance in a row, but there’s more. Kawai found out Tuesday afternoon she’s the first Illinois women’s tennis player to make the NCAA singles draw since 2005.
“We want their banners up on the wall,” Illinois head coach Evan Clark said. “We got a lot of men’s banners up here, we’d like a few more women’s and that’s the goal. Asuka’s worked really hard and she’s a person that’s been very good about making adjustments, making some changes that we’ve asked her to do and obviously she’s seeing the results.”
Kawai is part of a four-player sophomore class that’s ready to take Illinois women’s tennis to the next level, as they try to make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.