April 1, 2011

Looking for the mental edge

Sixteenth-ranked men’s tennis faces another tough away match tomorrow, traveling to conference rival and fifth-ranked Wash U. for a 2 p.m. match. The encounter in St. Louis comes after the Maroons suffered a 2-7 loss against third-ranked Emory during Spring break.

Despite the Bears’ (8-3) high ranking and the loss to Emory (16-2), the Maroons (11-3) have high hopes of picking up a win.

“ Last year the Wash U match was our closest of the season,” second-year doubles player Harrison Abrams said. “ We were ranked 18th in the country and they were ranked second and they barely edged us, 5-4. We were within two points of clinching the match but just couldn’t close it out. This year the match swings further in our favor as they lost their best player and defending national champion, John Watts.”

Also, according to fourth-year singles player Will Zhang, a team co-captain along with fourth-year Kunal Pawa, the Maroons are closer in talent to the Bears than their ranking would suggest.

“ I don’t think our ranking reflects the strength of our program this year–we’ve been improving throughout the season and we have the quality and depth of a top-10 team,” Zhang said. “ This means we have a lot to prove this weekend at Wash U and we’ll be ready.” Supporting this assessment, the men have only lost to top-10 or Division I teams while dominating several other ranked and nearly-ranked opponents. This has led to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranking the Maroons third in the Central Region. That region is topped by none other than Wash U.

The match has psychological implications with the UAA tournament approaching in two weeks. After losing to Emory, the top-ranked UAA team, the Maroons cannot afford another conference loss.

“ The team that wins the UAA tournament gets an automatic bid to NCAAs,” Zhang said. “ Wash U and Emory have traditionally been our top opponents, so our matchups with them are crucial.”

After Wash U, the Maroon’s streak of away games continues with games against Illinois schools Wheaton and North Central. A final home dual against Lake Forest leads into the UAA Championship at Brandeis, with NCAA Regionals a full month later. With the NCAA matches far away, the Maroons can keep their focus on tomorrow’s crucial encounter. As Abrams said: “ This weekend, winning is not optional.”