Splitting a pair of home matches this weekend, men’s tennis showed that while it has the confidence and skill to dominate mid-level squads, it still needs some work before it can contend with the big boys.
Crushing Luther (10–2) 8–1 on Friday, the Maroons lost only three sets as they topped the Norse, who are ranked 12th regionally, a notch above the 13th-ranked Maroons. Yet when Wash U (6–2), which is ranked seventh nationally, came to town Sunday morning, Chicago stumbled out of the gates, dropping all three doubles matches in a 6–3 loss.
Starting the weekend off in style with a trio of doubles wins, the Maroons were led by second-years Garrett Brinker and Steve Saltarelli at the top slot, who polished off their visiting counterparts, 8–4. Second-year Lado Bakhutashvili teamed with first year Tim Walsh for an 8–3 win, and the pair of first-year Mark Bonner and fourth-year Bharath Sithian finished the sweep 8–3.
“We’ve been watching a lot of videos on YouTube of lions,” Brinker said, “so we’ve really inhabited a killer instinct. The entire team came out ready to go, and if we have the confidence, I feel that all of our doubles teams are hard to beat.”
Singles action saw more Maroon dominance mixed with a couple of nail-biters. Playing at the fifth slot, Saltarelli won 7–6 (10–2), 2–6, 1–0 (10–3), needing a super tiebreaker to top fourth-year Tim Eisele. Getting the rough end of the same match score, Brinker lost his tiebreaker 11–13 to give Chicago its only loss on the night.
Riding this overpowering win into Sunday’s contest, Chicago couldn’t convert the momentum into results, dropping every doubles match to find itself in an early, and eventually insurmountable, hole.
Fighting towards two 8–6 losses, Brinker and Saltarelli, along with Walsh and Bakhutasvili, each held their own, but Bonner and fourth-year Bharath Sithian were dominated in an 8–2 effort.
The doubles trouble on Sunday was striking for the Maroons, who had swept the category against Luther. Heading into the Wash U match up, Chicago could boast a 19–11 doubles record and a 17–4 mark against D-III teams.
“I don’t think the doubles teams were necessarily inconsistent,” Zhang said, “but the caliber of the other teams’ doubles ranged drastically. Luther’s doubles teams played Canadian doubles, in which one player plays points by himself while his partner jumps rope on the sideline (to stay loose), but we handled that strategy pretty well to sweep against Luther. Wash U’s doubles, on the other hand, were very experienced. We played them well, but losing some key points late in the matches cost us there.”
If results fluctuated in doubles, Zhang and Bonner exemplified consistency over the weekend. Fitting in comfortably to the starting lineup after replacing first-year Stanley Do, Bonner has built a commanding 7–1 record for himself at fifth and sixth singles. In the sixth slot over the weekend, he was no less dominant, cruising to a 6–0, 6–2 win against Luther’s fourth-year Brad Nelson and repeating the success with a 6–2, 6–3 victory on Sunday.
Zhang, meanwhile, is in a league of his own. Cementing his spot as the squad’s top talent, Zhang took an easy 6–3, 6–2 victory against Luther before squaring off against John Watts, DIII’s top ranked singles player. Before facing Zhang, Watts had lost only 8 of 44 sets since the fall while posting an 18–2 record.
“I feel that I was able to pull out the win over Watts because of one specific shot: the drop shot,” Zhang said. “I was able to use the drop shot effectively to keep Watts off-balance.”
Rebounding from his tough Friday loss, Brinker took a decisive 6–3, 6–1 victory, but with the score at 4–3 after Zhang and Bonner scored wins, Saltarelli fell 7–5, 7–5, and Walsh went down 7–6 (7–3), 4–6, 6–3, cementing the loss for the Maroons.
Despite the loss, Chicago takes comfort in its singles split, knowing that with some work in the doubles department the young team can contend.
“I feel that this match showed that we are very competitive with Wash U,” Zhang said, “and that we have a good shot against them–we match up pretty well it seems. We just need to fight hard.”