April 29, 2008

Perennial powers stop men's tennis at UAAs

Men’s tennis headed into the weekend looking for first-class tickets to upset city for their first UAA title, but matches against higher-ranked Wash U and Carnegie proved too much for the young Maroons.

Having played just two matches in the past month, 21st-ranked Chicago started with a strong 6–3 victory over NYU (8–9) but stumbled in the next two rounds.

Riding a nine-match winning streak, second-ranked Wash U (16–4) controlled most of the semifinal match, winning by a 5–0 margin and sending Chicago to a battle with 16th-ranked Carnegie Mellon (18–7), which the Tartans won 5–2.

“We played hard and competed well, but it’s still disappointing not to finish higher than our seed,” head coach Marty Perry said. “We thought we had a good shot to finish third, but it didn’t happen for us.”

Kicking off tournament play with a win over fifth-seeded NYU, fourth-seeded Chicago seized control of the match early, winning at first and second doubles and falling in a closely contested third doubles match. Up 2–1, the Maroons took four singles matches despite first-year Will Zhang’s 5–7, 7–6, 10–6 loss at first singles.

“We had just listened to ‘Get Silly,’ among other new southern music, so we were pretty pumped up,” Zhang said. “We were also the favorites and took control early on and didn’t really give them a chance.”

The win sent the Maroons to the semifinals, where Chicago met Wash U for the second time of the season. Their previous match, which took place on March 2, saw the Bears capture a 6–3 victory, but the upstart South Siders had something different in mind.

“We thought that we could maybe sneak out the upset if we played our best, or close to it,” Zhang said. “But they came out firing, and took the momentum right away, even starting with winning the racket spins.”

The Bears swept the doubles, taking a commanding 3–0 lead behind strong performances on the part of third-years Charlie Cutler and Chris Hoeland, the Central division’s top-ranked doubles pair. Cutler and Hoeland took down the fourth-ranked second-year pair of Steve Saltarelli and Garrett Brinker 8–4 at first doubles, and the Bears allowed just two points at second and third doubles combined with 8–2 and 8–0 victories.

“We were outclassed,” Perry said. “They’re deep, and they have very good doubles…. They played with more confidence.”

Wash U would take second and fourth singles as first-year Tim Walsh suffered a 6–1, 6–0 beating and Brinker fell 6–0, 6–2. Lightning cut the match short, leaving the remaining matches unfinished and sending the Maroons to a third-place match with Carnegie Sunday morning.

After the Maroons split first and third doubles with the Tartans, Chicago’s team of Lado Bukhatishvili and Tim Walsh looked to gain the advantage in a hard-fought match at second doubles. Carnegie, however, nabbed a 9–7 win, giving the third-seeded Tartans a 2–1 advantage heading into singles competition.

“It came down to second doubles,” Perry said. “We had our shots in that match. Both teams fought really hard for it. It was whatever they could do to win the match, and unfortunately we came out on the short end of that one.”

Zhang would bounce back with a 6–2, 6–3 victory at first singles, but it would prove to be the final point of Chicago’s season. Brinker dropped a tight 6–4, 7–5 decision at fourth singles, Bonner fell 6–4, 6–4 in the fifth slot, and Saltarelli’s 6–1, 6–3 loss gave Carnegie a 5–2 victory, leaving Chicago with a fourth-place finish before the final two matches were finished.

In the tournament finals, Emory would capture its 19th consecutive title, with Wash U taking second.

“Overall, I’d say we, as a team, are rather disappointed at the finish,” Zhang said. “We didn’t play especially poorly, but we also didn’t play our best. Finishing top three would have probably put us into the NCAA National Tournament, but that didn’t happen for us.”

With just two matches between spring break and the UAA tournament, the team was forced to turn to Boggle and Frisbee for preparation. The new regimen was a stark departure from the training needed to face the team’s tough opponents earlier in the season, which included Northwestern, Chicago State, and UW–Green Bay.

“It’s hard to get matches [at this time of year] because most of the regional schools are playing their conference schedule,” Perry said. “I don’t think it’s the reason we didn’t do as well as we might have, but you do lose your edge a little bit if you’re not competing right up until UAAs.”

With Chicago out of the team tournament picture, the Maroons’ postseason hopes lie with the doubles pair of Saltarelli and Brinker. The top four pairs from each region qualify for the tournament, and as of April 15, the South Siders’ duo is in line for the final spot.

“They’ve been playing really well; they’re progressively getting better week to week,” Perry said. “They deserve to go. They’ve got a good shot.”

With Sithian the only graduating player and the only upperclassman in the UAA lineup, Chicago looks to build next year with a competitive schedule and additional focus on their doubles pairings.

“We’re going to get better, but so will everyone else,” Perry said. “It’s a tough conference to be in.”