Men’s tennis frustrated by Chicago at indoor nationals, again

Jon Lewis | Senior Sports Editor

Last season, the Washington University men’s tennis team was up against a wall in the third-place match of the ITA Indoor National Championships but just managed to squeak out a 5-4 win over Carnegie Mellon University.

Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis, Minn. the Bears found themselves on the other side of a 5-4 decision, as the University of Chicago’s Charlie Pei held off Wash. U.’s freshman Koki Takabatake 7-6, 7-6, and they lost to the Maroons at the same tournament for the second straight year.

Sophomore JJ Kroot hits the ball during a match last season. The Bears fell to University of Chicago this weekend, coming a year after Chicago defeated the team 7-2 in the semi-finals.Grace Bruton | Student Life

Sophomore JJ Kroot hits the ball during a match last season. The Bears fell to University of Chicago this weekend, coming a year after Chicago defeated the team 7-2 in the semi-finals.

The loss to Chicago was particularly smarting for the Bears for two reasons. Firstly, Chicago is Wash. U.’s most constant rival: Sunday’s match was the fourth time the two teams have faced off since Feb. 25, 2017, and counting this most recent game the series is now an even 2-2 over this period. Secondly, Wash. U.’s loss in the third-place match comes a year to the day after Chicago beat them 7-2 in last year’s semi-final.

While the ending of indoor nationals left a sour taste for the Bears, the weekend started off well. Wash. U., ranked sixth in Division III, were favored in their quarterfinal matchup Friday against No. 11 University of Redlands, and they showed why, jumping out to a 3-0 lead after doubles.

The highlight of the day in singles was senior Johnny Wu’s win at No. 1 singles. Wu, personally unranked this year despite coming off a season in which he qualified for the NCAA individual championships, powered his way to a 6-3, 6-2 win over Chase Lipscomb, the fifth-ranked player in the division. Wu’s win along with the sweep of doubles set the tone for a resounding 9-0 shutout victory for the Bears.

Saturday’s match would prove to be a little trickier, as Wash. U. faced No. 2 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS). CMS—composed of athletes from Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College and Scripps College—is a perennial Division III powerhouse but traditionally does not participate in indoor nationals; they appeared in the tournament this year for the first time in nine seasons.

 Sophomore Bernardo Amaral Neves cheers after scoring during the ITA Indoor National Championships this weekend.Dan Johnson | Intercollegiate Tennis Association

Sophomore Bernardo Amaral Neves cheers after scoring during the ITA Indoor National Championships this weekend.

The match got off to a rocky start for the Bears. Two doubles pairs—Wu and sophomore Bernardo Neves and freshman Ben van der Sman and sophomore J.J. Kroot—lost their matchups very quickly. This meant that with their match tied 5-5, junior Konrad Kozlowski and freshman Daniel Li found themselves the only pair still playing.

With all eyes on them, Kozlowski and Li gave the Bears a foothold in the match. After a break gave them a 7-6 lead and a chance to clinch, Kozlowski made no mistake in a dominant final service game and the duo took the match 8-6.

Wash. U., however, would be unable to overturn the 1-2 deficit in singles. By the time Wu lost a marathon three-setter 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, CMS had already clinched with three other singles wins. Neves and Kroot were the only players to win in singles for the Bears, and Claremont took the match 6-3.

That semifinal loss set up a rematch in the third-place match with Chicago. The Maroons were red-hot coming in the tournament, only dropping two total individual matchups in six matches leading up to indoor nationals. In their semifinal matchup, they only narrowly lost to No. 1 Emory University.

While Kozlowski and Li were the only doubles team to win the day before, they were the only Wash. U. duo to lose Sunday, as Neves and freshman Mark Wu and van der Sman and Kroot both picked up victories.

The men’s tennis team huddles up at the ITA Indoor National Championships in Minneapolis, Minn. this weekend. The Bears finished fourth in the tournament after finishing third last year.Dan Johnson | Intercollegiate Tennis Association

The men’s tennis team huddles up at the ITA Indoor National Championships in Minneapolis, Minn. this weekend. The Bears finished fourth in the tournament after finishing third last year.

Despite having a 2-1 lead after doubles this time, the Bears once again could only muster two wins in singles, with Wu and Neves the only two players to register singles victories on the day. Takabakate’s match was the last to finish with the scores knotted at 4-4, and the freshman was unable to fight off match point in the second set.

The loss to Chicago broke an almost-year-long trend for the Bears. Since a 6-3 loss to Claremont last March, Wash. U. had played 20 matches and were undefeated when they had taken the lead in doubles. In the past two seasons, two doubles wins has almost always been enough for the Bears to secure a win, though in both the semifinal and the third-place match at ITAs, they would have needed a doubles sweep to win with the same singles results.

Going forward, the Bears will need to find a few more wins in singles to beat the top teams. It seems that head coach Roger Follmer is still shuffling his deck a little bit, and he changed his singles lineup in between every match at indoor nationals. Seniors Shaun Berman and Jason Haugen and junior Radha Vishnubhotla were all regular contributors last season and missed this weekend with various ailments, so expect to see some more lineup change in the future.

Wash. U. has next weekend off, but then faces a daunting spring break trip to California in which they will face at least three ranked Division III schools and Division I Lehigh University. Despite another loss to Chicago, the Bears will actually hope that this season actually continues to mirror the last one, in which: They lost to the Maroons at indoors, then had some success over a tough spring break, and lastly got revenge with two wins over Chicago.