No mistake by the lake: surprising third for men’s tennis

By Joe Katz

A miracle on the Cuyahoga was not in the cards for men’s tennis. But after an inconsistent spring, they proved they’re here to stay in the UAA.

With a 6–3 drubbing of 11th-ranked Carnegie Mellon (18–7) at the league championships Sunday, the Maroons (10–8) wrapped up their season by securing their second top-three showing in the conference in three years. True to form, they did it by relying on a doubles sweep to down the Tartans in the third-place match and using their depth to slip past Brandeis (10–8) 5–4 in the first round Friday. The only black mark on their record for the weekend came against always-dominant third-ranked Emory (18–8), who whitewashed Chicago 6–0 in semifinal action Saturday.

With the perennial champion Eagles looming ahead in their bracket, a third-place finish was about as good as the fifth-seeded Maroons could expect on their way down to Cleveland. In making it to the third day, they demonstrated that a disappointing fifth in 2006 was a fluke and that Chicago will be a force to be reckoned with in the league from here on in.

“This weekend wasn’t a statement about the team to the conference. It was about us finally realizing for ourselves how good of a team we really are,” third-year Bharath Sithian said.

A quality weekend was not predestined for the Maroons, a young team that did not exactly pass its early-season tests with flying colors. It would have been easy to fold with the way things got started against the Judges. First-year Steve Saltarelli and fourth-year Vivek Venkataraman (12–8) pulled off a surprisingly easy 8–3 win at first doubles over the 12th-ranked duo of fourth-years Sam Jonas and Michael Vulfovich (11–5). Then things began to go awry, with first-years Garrett Brinker and Noah Schneider (14–3) falling in the tiebreaker at second 9–8 (7–4) and Brandeis getting a win at third for the 2–1 lead.

Chicago didn’t crumble and looked to the bottom of the lineup to pull out the comeback in singles. Venkataraman (1–15) lost his fourth straight at first, but the South Siders pulled out wins at second, third, fifth, and sixth to barely edge out the Judges. Brinker (12–8) at second and Sithian (11–5) at sixth were each pushed to a third set, and both won 6–3 to lock it up for their team.

“I don’t think there was really much doubt we were going to win the match,” head coach Marty Perry said. “We felt pretty confident that we could win four of the singles matches if we play hard. It worked out for us. We were pretty confident we were going to do it.”

The Maroons were the only lower-seeded team to win in the first round, and their reward was a shot at the reigning kings of the court. Emory was without third-ranked singles maven second-year Michael Goodwin (17–4), who also pairs with sixth-ranked fourth-year Yoji Masuoka to make up the third-ranked doubles squad in DIII. His absence made no difference against Chicago. Masuoka and new partner fourth-year Lee Friedman rolled over Saltarelli and Venkataraman 8–5 at first, and only Sithian and classmate Joseph Tchan (4–3) came close to a win in doubles, falling 9–7 at third. Venkataraman, Brinker, and Saltarelli (10–10) all went down in straight sets in singles.

The Emory dynasty was subsequently tested in the final by ninth-ranked Wash U (18–4), but the Eagles emerged on the sweet side of a 5–4 score for their 17th straight UAA title.

“We went in to the match with some pretty good energy, but we just couldn’t find a way to hold,” Perry said. “They’re better than us right now. When we went down three after doubles, I don’t know if we really believed we had a shot.”

“Emory will always be a great team, but DIII tennis is getting tougher each year, and I think their dynasty will soon be ending,” Brinker said.

Meanwhile, the Maroons moved on to the third-place match. Carnegie had been their first-round opponent in last year’s conference tourney, and the upset proved the final nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. Chicago was happy to return the favor. Tandems play, a strength for the team all season long, proved the difference against the Tartans as they ripped through their opponents for a sweep at doubles. Second and third were both white-knuckle close, but Brinker and Schneider prevailed 9–8 (10–8), and Sithian and Tchan survived 9–7.

The Maroons then only needed two wins in six singles matches to clinch and got them with relative ease from Brinker, Sithian, and Schneider.

“We came into the match with more heart than I’ve seen from this team all year.  Winning all three points completely demoralized them, and we basically had the match from that point,” Brinker said.

“This was basically a statement to the Carnegie team that we now have a lineup filled with guys who are ready to stomp on some engineers whenever we are given the call,” Sithian said.

The third-place standing matched their 2005 performance and was only exceeded in program history by a second-place showing in 1995.

“The team was young. Our doubles had to mature and develop, our freshmen needed to get acquainted with college tennis, and I think we did that and got better as the year went on,” Perry said. “I definitely think we’ll be an NCAA–caliber team coming into next year.”

With the playoff system having shifted to place greater weight on winning the conference, UAAs will mark the end of the line of men’s tennis in 2007. Only seven at-large berths are available for teams, putting their second playoff appearance in three years out of the question. The first doubles team is most likely to make it in the individual tournament, which will be announced Wednesday, but Venkataraman and Saltarelli are not anticipating being selected.