April 21, 2006

Men’s tennis ready for biggest test of season at league tourney

It’s one of the toughest conference tournaments in Division III men’s tennis. But this time around, the Maroons know they’re up to the challenge.

After escaping the league cellar for the first time since 1998 last year and battling through a tough schedule all spring, 19th-ranked Chicago (10–9) is set to take on the best at this weekend’s UAA championships in Atlanta. It all starts this afternoon at 2 p.m., when the third-seeded South Siders take on sixth-seed Carnegie Mellon (3–11) in the first round. If they can beat the Tartans for the second time this year, they’ll likely have a chance to avenge an early-season loss against the second-seeded, eighth-ranked Wash U Bears (16–1) at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

In their final regular season bout, the Maroons fell 4–3 to Olivet Nazarene (1–4) at Stagg Wednesday. Fourth-year Ward Bortz was a 6–4, 6–1 winner over first-year Aaron Gregory at first, and third-year Vivek Venkataraman slammed fourth-year Fermin Amezqueta at second 6–4, 6–1. Second-year Sasha Deriy did some damage of his own, dropping fourth-year Luis Loyola 6–4, 6–3 at third. Unfortunately, Nazarene swept the bottom three spots and took second and third doubles to clinch the tandem point and the meet.

“Olivet is good. I think we played all right, but hopefully we can bring it up a level at UAAs,” Bortz said.

They’ll need to take that next step up, because nothing will be handed to the Maroons over the next few days. Between Chicago, Wash U, top seed Emory (second) and fourth-seeded NYU (22nd), half the league is nationally ranked. Emory’s Eagles (13–3) have failed to take home the league title only once in UAA history, and have finished in the top eight at NCAAs every year since 1992.

The rest of the league hasn’t exactly been rolling over either. Five squads made the round of 27 at nationals last spring and even seventh-seed Brandeis (7–9) and eighth-seed Case (9–3) are capable of upsetting any squad that takes them too lightly. In this no-quarter-given atmosphere, the Maroons will hope to pull out a top-three team finish for the second year in a row.

“We’re looking to win in the first round and then take it one match at a time,” head coach Marty Perry said. “We have to go in with an attitude that we can’t think about rankings, that we can’t think about matchups that happened in the past, we have to come out and fight hard. If we come together and play with enthusiasm and fire for three days straight, I think we have a good chance to finish top three.”

“I would just like to fight as hard as we can,” said Bortz, who is currently ranked 21st in the nation. “If we take care of that, the matches will take care of themselves.”

The Maroons should be well prepared for that challenge after a whirlwind season. Chicago played a brutal schedule, going 1–5 against top-25 squads and 6–7 against regionally ranked teams. The Maroons got off to a good start, winning five of their first six team competitions including victories over currently 23rd-ranked Coe (24–4) and 24th-ranked Denison (11–3) and only losing to 16th-ranked Kenyon (11–4). They couldn’t keep up that pace, as they subsequently dropped five straight to a series of quality opponents in a tough stretch between February 18 and March 20. Their struggles culminated in a 7–0 whitewash against 11th-ranked Kalamazoo (14–8) on their spring break trip to Hilton Head, SC.

That defeat would prove the turning point, as they blanked Wooster (9–7) and St. Thomas (8–8) March 22 to recapture their confidence and momentum. While Chicago slipped up again in a critical home weekend April 8–9 with losses to Calvin (15–3) and Wash U, the squad has shown renewed fire throughout the past three weeks.

That burning desire for the win goes all the way up and down the lineup. The returning All-American Bortz has led the team at first singles throughout the year with a 15–7 mark, with Deriy (15–8) becoming a major factor in recent weeks with eight straight wins at third. However, those two have hardly been the only contributors. Venkataraman (11–13) has performed respectably at second despite being limited by illness. The second-year sensations Joseph Tchan (13–11) and Bharath Sithian (11–11) have provided effective depth at fourth and fifth for the Maroons, and first-year Connor Farrell (9–7) hasn’t let his youth hold him back at sixth. While it took the team some time to get there, at UAAs Bortz and Venkataraman (7–3) will pair up at first doubles, followed by Sithian and Tchan (6–6) at second, and Deriy and first-year Alex Winney (3–6) at third.

“I think we have a chance to win at every position, if we’re willing to fight and grind and put a high priority on execution,” Perry said. “ I think we can win matches 4–3, or win that same match 7–0, or lose that same match 7–0. It has a lot to do with attitude. If we have all seven guys bringing that never-say-die attitude on the same day, I think that’s the key.”

The mostly veteran squad knows just how tough the task ahead of them is. But after last year, they also know they have the capability to put the hurt on some of their opponents. After six straight years of last-place finishes, the Maroons slipped past Carnegie 4–3 in the first round last year. While they were blanked 7–0 in the second round by an Emory team that went on to finish third in the nation, Chicago emerged on the sunny side of another 4–3 decision against Wash U to win the third-place match and help them clinch their first-ever national tournament berth.

“We wanted it, we fought hard, and we were able to come out on top in two close matches in three days,” Perry said. “We had finished last so much, the guys were hungry to finish high.”

Before they can look to establish their place among the possible national title contenders at the top of the league, the Maroons will have to match last year’s showing against the Tartans. Chicago relied on its depth to win this season’s February 11 bout between these squads 4–2. Though Bortz was felled 6–4, 6–2 by first-year Yiran Liu (5–12) at first, and Deriy was smacked 3–6, 6–1, 6–1 at second by second-year Andrew Clearfield (11–4), the Maroons fought back to take the match behind their depth. Venkataraman handled second-year Stephen Kuhn (5–12) 6–3, 6–2 at third, while Tchan (7–5, 4–6, 6–1 victor at fourth) and Winney (4–6, 6–3, 6–1 winner at sixth) locked it up with third-set wins. Chicago had earlier earned the doubles point with second and third tandem victories.

“I honestly believe every match is going to be a test. I’m going to do my best to get the guys to believe that there will be no easy matches. They’re going to have to fight for every point,” Perry said.

“I think we have a great chance against both teams,” Bortz said. “I am excited to play the number one from Carnegie, since he upset me earlier this year.”

In other first-round action, Emory (13–3) will take on Case, and NYU (8–5) battles fifth seed Rochester (13–4) at 11:30 a.m. today. Wash U faces off against Brandeis at 2 p.m.

With their number eight regional ranking and only eight Central teams bound for the NCAAs, Chicago is solidly ensconced on the bubble. They will likely not be able to improve their position much this weekend, with only Case and Wash U joining them in representing the region in Atlanta.

“If we’re able to deal well and beat some of those top teams, that’ll help. Wash U has a direct impact, and if we can have a good match with them, it’ll help,” Perry said. “We’ll see what happens with NCAAs, but it’s kind of out of our control.”