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Men’s tennis pulled off one of the biggest upsets NCAA Division III tennis has seen all year. The 15th ranked Maroons barely edged their conference rivals, fifth-ranked Wash U, 5-4 in Saturday’s thrilling St. Louis contest. The upset marked the first home loss for the Bears of the season and their third home loss in seven years. More importantly, the Chicago win improves the South Sider’s record to 12-3 on the season and gives well-needed momentum going into April 15th-17th’s UAA Championships.
Going into the team dual, head coach Marty Perry used skillful tactics to ensure wins in all three doubles matches. Seeing varied results from the doubles teams throughout spring break, Perry knew that the only way to upset the seemingly unstoppable 8-3 Wash U team was to pursue a drastic lineup change. First-year first doubles player Zsolt Szabo was reunited with his former partner, first-year Krishna Ravella, at third doubles, while first-year Alex Golovin, having not played doubles since the ITA Regional Championships in September, was paired with third-year Jan Stefanski at first doubles.
Understanding each other’s playing styles proved to be the key in the third doubles match. Szabo and Ravella were able to complement one another’s strengths, as the pair won 8-5.
“From the beginning, we tried to corner our opponents with Krishna’s volleys and my serves and not give them the chance to show their strengths. We had some fluctuations in our performance, but it is common in our game to lose a break here and there. Eventually, we both finished strong and brought the W,” Szabo said.
The lineup change proved to be effective at the first doubles position as well. Golovin was able to collect himself during his most important match this season. Despite his collegiate inexperience at doubles, Golovin complemented Stefanski’s strengths to erase an early 2-0 deficit. Precise serving and returning helped the pair to take a 5-2 lead, but the Bears rallied back to tie the match at 5-5.
Both teams were then able to hold their next three service games to cause the Chicago pair to be one game away from a victory, at 7-6. Breaking the Wash U pair was a difficult task, but Golovin and Stefanski fought off their nerves to ensure an 8-6 upset.
“We began being up in the game and after multiple match points I hit a forehand that caused Wash U to commit a forced error,” Golovin said. “Competitors always find a way to win, which is what Jan and I did in our match against Wash U.”
With an 8-5 win by third-year Troy Brinker and first-year Neil Karandikar at second doubles, the South Siders took an early and surprising 3-0 lead going into the singles matches.
Although the Maroons only needed two singles wins to clinch the match, they did not want to start speaking of cruising to an easy victory after the doubles matches, remembering the comeback they had made against DePauw just four days earlier.
“Just last week against DePauw, we got swept in doubles and then came out to win 5 of 6 singles matches to win the match, and we did not want Wash U to do something like that here,” Ravella said.
The Wash U singles players did all they could to stop the Maroons short of an emphatic win. A 6-3, 6-0 loss by Szabo at second singles and a 7-5, 6-4 win by Stefanski at sixth singles kept the Maroon lead stagnant at 4-1. However, shortly after, losses by fourth-year Kunal Pawa, 6-4, 6-4, at fifth singles, and Golovin, 3-6, 6-0, 6-0, at fourth singles caused the Maroon lead to dwindle to one match. Golovin felt that his Wash U opponent stepped up to the task of making a comeback for his team.
“I managed to win the first set, but the remaining two sets were a big struggle simply because my opponent was outplaying me from every angle of the court. I tried my best to mix it up, but he improved his level dramatically, which caused him to win the match. This is one of the few times when I could say that I was clearly outplayed by an opponent,” Golovin said.
With only fourth-year Will Zhang at first singles and third-year Troy Brinker at third singles remaining on the courts, one Chicago win would shock the St. Louis crowd.
A Brinker victory would clinch the unlikely upset. In spite of losing a tight second set tiebreaker, Brinker did not let the momentum shift Wash U’s way. While the entire Bear team cheered against Brinker, he contained his opposition in the third set, winning in dramatic fashion 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-4, clinching the win for the Maroons. Shortly after, Zhang lost his match 5-7, 6-3, 6-0, but all was well as the Maroons won 5-4.
The win was important in providing confidence and optimism heading into April 15’s UAA Championships.
“This win was very important for us. It gives us a lot of confidence going into UAA’s. But we know we still have a lot to prove and I think we can play even better than we did today, especially in singles. This was a very big step in the right direction, but I think we all believe we can do bigger and better things and are looking forward to the next month or so,” Stefanski said. Chicago plays again tomorrow.