Hobbled men’s tennis struggles on road against mighty Tigers

By Joe Katz

Playing without their top two singles players, men’s tennis gave some fresh faces a trial by fire against one of the nation’s top teams. Unfortunately, the new additions couldn’t break the losing streak.

The 25th-ranked Maroons (5–4) couldn’t pull off the upset at 13th-ranked DePauw (4–4), falling 6–1 Saturday at Greencastle. With both fourth-year first singles star Ward Bortz and second-year second singles Sasha Deriy out, the Maroons performed admirably but came up short. First-year Connor Farrell (5–3) recorded the Maroons’ sole win at fifth singles as Chicago dropped its third straight dual-meet decision.

Depth has been a strength for the Tigers all year, and the Maroons were hard-pressed to counter it with the personnel issues they faced on the weekend. Deriy (7–6) was forced to miss the trip for academic reasons, and 21st-ranked Bortz (8-–4) was held out after suffering an ankle sprain in practice Thursday. Bortz is expected to return in time for Chicago’s next set of matches starting March 19.

“We would have liked to have them in there,” head coach Marty Perry said. “I thought we had a chance to possibly win, but the guys we took played hard. You never want to lose, but considering the circumstances that we were in, I think we made the best of it.”

In the absence of Bortz and Deriy, the usual starters moved up in the lineup, and a few players who have largely been limited to pushing their teammates in practice got a chance to strut their stuff. Farrell took advantage of the opportunity against DePauw third-year Jeff Zanchelli. After falling behind early in his first set, he fought back to even things up before dropping 3–6. Buoyed by the momentum from the first set, he took the second set 6–4, and went up a break early to win the superbreaker 10–7.

“He stuck to his game plan and executed it well,” Perry said. “That’s the guy that had been playing five all year for them. It’s good to see him come through and get us a point.”

No one else on the team was able to execute quite well enough. Second-year Bharath Sithian (6–6) performed respectably in his first stint at third singles against first-year Scott Swanson but fell short 6–3, 6–3. Third-year Vivek Venkataraman (7–7) may have come the closest to getting on the board for Chicago, repeatedly threatening 35th-ranked third-year Evan Webeler in a stretched-out 6–4, 6–2 defeat.

“Vivek raised his game to give him a match, which is a good sign. He went after him with a lot of confidence,” Perry said. “Missing players gives people a chance to get in the lineup or play higher, and people can build some confidence off of that.”

It was a rougher go for the rest of the lineup. Matched up at second singles against Tigers’ second-year Kortney Keith, who coaches believe should be ranked above Webeler, second-year Joseph Tchan (8–6) fell 6–0, 6–1. First-year Alex Winney (5–6), starting at fourth for the first time in his collegiate career, was on the receiving end of a 6–1, 6–0 thumping by third-year Ryan Golden. Second-year Jack Chua (0–1) couldn’t make his season debut count in a 6–2, 6–1 loss to second-year Scott Sauer at sixth.

“Our effort, rather than our performance, can give us some momentum going into spring break. We’re looking not so much at the outcome as how each individual approached the match,” Perry said. “Even in the matches that weren’t that close, we were trying to play better than we did [in a 6–1 loss to] Carthage [February 25.] Despite the score, it was a positive performance. You can’t control whether you win or lose, you just have to do the things you can do to put yourself in a position where you can win, and we did that.”

There was no relief for the team in doubles play, as the Maroons were swept for just the second time this season. At first, Sithian and Tchan found themselves in a big hole early and try as they might couldn’t dig their way out, falling 8–5 to Webeler and Golden. Chua and Farrell jumped out to a 3–0 lead but couldn’t hang on against third-year Billy Elliott and first-year Bryan Heck, dropping the match 8–5 at third. Venkataraman and Winney stayed competitive, but ended the day with an 8–3 loss in their second doubles match versus Zanchelli and Keith.

The team has struggled against high quality opponents in doubles competition, and coaches have been experimenting with new pairings, such as the Sithian-Tchan combination, over the past few meets. While the new combinations may not have yet produced many wins, coaches believe they have found the right combos in advance of the spring break trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina.

“Bharath and Joseph just started playing together that last match, and they’re more like a two or three team. For them to get that close is impressive,” Perry said. “We lost some big points here and there, but all three doubles matches were winnable from the way we were competing.”

The loss dropped the Maroons to 3–4 against regionally-ranked foes on the season. With Chicago bidding to make a return trip to the NCAA tournament, the failure to capitalize on early opportunities against Central opponents could pose a problem. However, with plenty of chances remaining against the best of the Midwest over the next seven weeks, there seems to be no reason to panic.

“We have to take care of our own performance goals on the court and in practice. NCAAs are not under our control,” Perry said. “We have the schedule to make it, and the rest of the season will give us ample opportunities to achieve that goal.”

Those opportunities will come quickly and furiously over break. Chicago will take on five squads in five days at Hilton Head from March 19–23, including three regional opponents. Tough brawls against Division II Washburn (3–1), seventh-ranked Kalamazoo (4–4), the Central’s number-nine team Carleton (8–0), 12th-regionally-ranked Wooster (2–0), and 21st-ranked Trinity of Connecticut (2–0) should give the Maroons experience and allow them to improve by leaps and bounds without the distractions of schoolwork.

“It’s a chance for us to go in for a week and just focus on tennis,” Perry said. “We want to play some really good tennis going into April and UAAs, and come back a better team than when we left.”