Men’s tennis on track to start spring season

By Joe Katz

The Prairie Stars made men’s tennis sweat. But as comeback followed comeback, it became more and more clear how far this team has come since the beginning of preseason.

Despite falling behind early in five singles matches, the 25th-ranked Maroons (1–0) grabbed a 6–1 win over NAIA Illinois–Springfield (0–1) at home Saturday. Chicago swept the three doubles showdowns and took five of six singles matches to clinch their dual-meet season opener. Only second-year Bharath Sithian fell at fourth singles, losing 2–6, 7–6, 1–0 in a super-breaker with the team win already locked up.

Despite starting five underclassmen and no fourth-years, the team demonstrated a calm resolve as the Prairie Stars grabbed early leads at first, second, fourth, and fifth singles, and they were up a break in each of the first two sets at the third spot.

The Maroons shook off what little rust they may have accumulated to make the early leads a distant memory. Sithian and second-year Sasha Deriy—playing up a spot due to fourth-year Ward Bortz’s absence—were both forced to third sets, but Deriy grabbed the 3–6, 6–3, 6–3 win at first singles. Third-year Vivek Venkatarman recorded a 7–5, 6–2 win at second, second-year Joseph Tchan was victorious in two sets 6–4, 6–4, and first-year Alex Winney won 6–3, 6–2.

“It’s very positive to pull that off this early in this season. I told the team afterwards that I was very impressed with their maturity. We looked like a really experienced team,” head coach Marty Perry said. “It’s the first match of the year, so you never know how it’s going to go, but we’ve been practicing for three weeks and conditioning for four. We were ready to go.”

The doubles matches went a little easier for the squad. Chicago earned the doubles point with a sweep, paced by an 8–6 win by Deriy and Tchan at the first spot. The pair came back from down a break to earn the win. The second doubles team of Sithian and Venkataraman led by a break for most of their match and closed out an 8–6 victory, while Winney and classmate Connor Farrell took their match 8–5.

“ played better as they went along, but we jumped on them early and the y never came back. Any time you can come away 3–0 in doubles, it’s pretty gratifying,” Perry said.

Tennis’s youngest members had the most dominating performances on the day. Both Winney and Farrell were in the first dual meet of their collegiate careers, and they showed no signs of letting the novelty affect them. Winney in particular should continue to receive plenty of opportunities over the coming months in the sixth spot.

“I’m pretty pleased with what they’ve done. Alex has probably surpassed my expectations a bit. He’s a great doubles player,” Perry said. “Connor’s pretty much where I thought he’d be, pushing guys, fighting to get into the lineup, and when he gets a chance, capitalizing on it.”

“I feel like I’ve improved a lot more than I expected in a very short time since last season,” Winney said. “I really just want to become the best player that I can be so that I can compete well for my team.”

While Illinois–Springfield is an NAIA program, they have some quality players and went 13–6 last year to qualify for the Region V tournament.

“They weren’t bad. We had to play really well to beat this team. But we went out there with the right attitude and with confidence,” Perry said.

“It sets the tone for the whole season, and it shows that we’re all hungry to win and to do battle,” Deriy said. “It was a really competitive atmosphere there.”

On the other hand, the visitors had the good fortune to duck Chicago’s top man. All-American Bortz was unavailable due to a professional trip, moving Deriy into the top spot. The 21st-ranked Bortz will kick off his bid for back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances next weekend. As with his teammates, coaches are unconcerned about his ability to hit the ground running.

“He’ll be ready to go next week. He’s playing pretty well right now, and he’s very experienced,” Perry said. “If we had to sit anyone in the first match, he’d be the one I’d sit.”

While there are tougher opponents ahead on the schedule, the team’s success in Bortz’s absence suggests a depth of talent never before seen in this program. The team will have plenty of time to experiment with different combinations over the next few weeks. It appears, though, that they’ve got the personnel to make any number of lineups work.

“It was actually a good thing ” Perry said. “When he’s in the lineup everyone relies on him to get it done, to really bring it and set the tone. To play a match that we have to play for without him in the lineup, I think it was good for everyone else . Connor could probably play four if he had to. We’re pretty deep.”

The team next travels to Cedar Rapids for dual meets with Coe (2–0, 1–0 IIAC), ranked eighth in the region, and Cornell (no record) Saturday. Last year, the Maroons, ranked sixth in the Central, beat Coe 4–3 on the road February 19 for their first big win, setting them on the road to an eventual NCAA berth. This time around, they won’t be able to surprise the Kohawks.

“It’s going to be big,” said Perry. “We’re going to work really hard this week, and we’re going to do our best not to be complacent. If we’re complacent, they’ll beat us.”