Despite a disappointing postseason loss putting an abrupt end to the team's surprise season, men's tennis knows this was a year for the record books.
The third-seeded Maroons (18-10) lost handily to second-seeded and 17th-ranked Carthage on Friday, knocking Chicago out of regionals. The Redmen won all six matchesfour singles and two doublesthat were completed, lost no sets, and were pushed to one tiebreaker.
"I think everyone had a bad match against Carthage; it just wasn't our day," said second-year Vivek Venkataraman, who lost his third-singles match 6-3, 6-3.
The 5-0 loss, however, hasn't erased the excitement over the season, especially Chicago's April 17 upset of 19th-ranked Wash U. In that match, the Maroons showed off the team's newfound depth and, perhaps even more importantly, conditioning. That win secured a third-place UAA finish, the second-highest place in team history (the Maroons finished second in 1995) and the first time above eighth since 1998.
"Even getting past the first round was a big thing, but to get third was almost unthinkable," first-year Bharath Sithian said. "Beating Wash U was greatcouldn't have expected that in my first year here."
"A breakthrough year for Chicago tennis," as Venkatarman said, the Maroons shocked a number of regional teams this year, which vaulted them all the way from being unranked before the year to seventh in the Central Region as of the mid-April poll. Judging by the team's third seed in one of the two regional brackets, Chicago's UAA upset apparently bumped the team even higher in the selection committee's estimation.
That ranking was a reflection of an eight-and-a-half game improvement from last year's 7-16 finish. Perhaps the biggest individual improvement came from fourth-year Jacob Reckess, who went 13-5 a year after finishing 3-7. More significant were a series of big fifth-singles wins he secured in 4-3 Chicago victories against nationally and regionally ranked opponents this year.
Reckess's first came on February 6 against Wisconsin-Whitewater (ranked 11th regionally), as he came back from a 9-3 deficit in the 10-point "superbreaker" to win the match 6-4, 3-6, 1-0. That match helped Chicago keep its 10th-place ranking, with the team looking to fight its way into the top eight. That opportunity came against eighth-ranked Coe, as Reckess secured the deciding point in a 6-1, 7-6 match.
Both of those, however paled in comparison to his win against Wash U second-year Chris Kuppler. Reckess fought off a series of match points in the second set after dropping the first 5-7, ultimately winning the next two 7-6 and 6-2 to officially put the Maroons back on the conference's map.
"[Jacob] came through in the clutch at UAAs and won two of the biggest matches of the year for us. He has been a great captain, and I know how excited he is that this program has finally been resurrected."
Though they may not have secured as many nail-biting victories, Reckess' fellow startersof whom only Venkataraman was a returnerwere as instrumental to the team's success. Third-year transfer Ward Bortz solidified the top-singles spot all year with his consistent, deep-court shots, going 25-9 on the year. The trio of first-years Sasha Deriy, Joseph Tchan, and Sithian rounded out the second, fourth, and sixth spots with a 48-39 combined singles record.
"Since I heard Joseph and Bharath would be coming to Chicago, I was very excited," said Venkataraman, who improved from 7-11 to 17-13 himself. "They really made great impressions, as people and tennis players when they came to campus. It was not only great getting them as recruits, but they improved drastically as the year progressed."
"Everyone stepped up in big matches, all the way down the lineup," Sithian added. "If you look at some of our close wins, guys were battling in each and every match, and on different days, different people came through, which is good since you know you can count on everyone to step up when the pressure's on and the team needs a point."
Second-year head coach Marty Perry, whom the players credit with being instrumental to the program's turnaround, was able to get the most out of his first recruiting class, again emphasizing smart, high-percentage play. Still, players brought their own personalities and styles to the game.
"Tennis is mostly a mental game, a chess match really, and even though Joseph is a lackluster chess player, his toughness and attitude on the court this year was really exemplary," said Venkataraman, referring to Tchan's countless come-from-behind victories. "Bharath is definitely the team's comic relief; watching him hit volleys rivals Dave Chapelle's standup."
The low-key Venkataraman knows Sithian's pre-game routine well, having watched his doubles partner, with whom he went 12-9 on the year, pump himself up with high-energy warm-up volleys and fist pumps. He emphasized how Sithian's and Tchan's energy provided a "domino effect" that vitalized the team. That undoubtedly helped in a season that spanned October and February through May.
Though the team did not get all the recruits it had hoped for, the players know that behind their UAA-best coaching staff they'll easily improve on this year. The leap probably won't be as great, but in a grueling season where the team provided surprise after surprise, the prospect of having to build on the program's first ever postseason experience doesn't daunt the players.
"We are all going to be a year older, and a year of college tennis translates into more maturity on the court than you would think," Sithian said. "[I'm] definitely looking forward to next year, although ready to take a little time off, as spring season has been going for over five months.
"Next year will hopefully be another important one for Chicago tennis."