Rain moves matches inside as rollercoaster season continues for men’s tennis
Depending on your perspective, this past weekend was either a set of encouraging performances or another disappointingly inconsistent run for the Washington University men’s tennis program. If you are glass-half-full kind of person, you could point to the fact that the Bears won singles in two matches in a row after struggling on that end in the early season. If you have a more pessimistic outlook, however, doubles play continues to be an issue for Wash. U. and their sixth loss to a ranked team this year will not do them any favors in the rankings.
The Bears were originally set to play on the Tao Tennis Center courts for the first time in 2018, hosting a Saturday doubleheader with Wabash College and No. 7 Gustavus Adolphus College, but the weather had other plans. After Friday’s non-stop rain continued in Saturday, both matches were moved to the indoor courts across the Mississippi River at the Kings Point Sports Club in Belleville, Ill.
With the later match against a top-10 team perhaps on his mind, head coach Roger Follmer sent out a shuffled doubles lineup for the first match against Wabash. Junior Konrad Kozlowski, a fixture at No. 1 doubles during his Wash. U. career, kept his spot at the top of the order. However, instead of playing with either of his usual partners—senior Jason Haugen or freshman Daniel Li—Kozlowski was paired with freshman Ben Van Der Sman. The new pairing came up short, losing an 8-6 decision to William Reifeis and Patrick McAuley.
At No. 2 doubles Follmer reinstituted one of his steadiest pairings from last season. Junior Radha Vishnubhotla and sophomore Bernardo Neves went 11-3 at the No. 3 spot last season, and have moved up to No. 2 this year to great effect: Their 8-2 win against Wabash was their third in a row.
At the finals doubles spot, the Bears featured the brand-new doubles pairing of Li and sophomore JJ Kroot. The duo did not have a successful debut, losing 8-6 to put the Bears down 2-1 heading into singles play.
A deficit after doubles has usually spelled trouble for the Bears this season. With the exception of a dominant 9-0 sweep of University of Redlands, Wash. U. had either lost or split singles play against every single Division III opponent they had faced this season. If they did not break that trend against unranked Wabash, that 2-1 hole would have translated into a loss.
The Bears, however, finally managed to buck that trend, and their singles play led to a comfortable victory in the end. Senior Johnny Wu, who had struggled at No. 1 singles during Wash. U.’s tough slate of spring break matches managed to find his form with a three-set victory. Though Haugen dropped his match at No. 2, the next four slots were all victories for the Bears, with senior Shaun Berman, Vishnubhotla and first-years Mark Wu and David Buchinsky all clinching wins to bring the final score to 6-3.
Between all of the weather issues, the match against Gustavus Adolphus did not start until well after the originally scheduled time, and would continue well into the late hours of the night. Follmer reshuffled the lineup for the second game, reuniting Kozlowski and Haugen for the first time since they came a few games short of earning All-American honors in the fall. The duo, ranked twelfth in the nation, showed a bit of that rust, and could not get any momentum going in an 8-2 loss to Mohanad Alhouni and Patrick Whaling, the No. 6 pairing in Division III.
The rest of doubles also did not go according to plan for the Bears, as Vishnubhotla and Neves saw their winning streak end with an 8-6 loss and Kroot and Li were unable to find their first win as a pairing.
Down 0-3 after doubles this time, the Bears once again needed solid production in singles. To a large extent, the singles lineup pulled through. If the early win was not proof enough that Wu was back to his best in singles, he showed it against the Gusties. The senior scored a straight-set, 6-4 7-5, victory over Alhouni, the top-ranked singles player in Division III.
Neves also secured a win against a ranked opponent, coming back from a set down to beat No. 18 Zach Ekstein. Van der Sman and Li picked up wins at the three and five slots, respectively. This meant that when Kroot’s comeback bid at No. 4 came up short, the whole match came down to freshman Koki Takabatake’s match at No. 6.
Takabatake and Gustavus’ Tommy Entwistle played a marathon at the end, with the Wash. U. freshman earning a third set after dropping the first 6-2. The decisive final set, played as the clock approached 11 p.m. Saturday night, went all the way to a tiebreak, in which Entwistle finally managed to pull away, clinching a 5-4 win for his team.
The loss against Gustavus drops Wash. U.’s record to 7-6. The Bears have only followed a win with another once this season, and both of those times one of those wins was in an exhibition match against a non-Division III opponent.
On the more optimistic side, a loss to the No. 7 team in its division will likely not drop the No. 9 Bears too far in the rankings, and despite persisting struggles in doubles, they can take some positives from the weekend. If the singles lineup can play like it did on Saturday down the stretch the rest of the season, the inconsistent doubles play might not matter. After not winning more than three singles matches in any Division III matchups this season, Wash. U. will be encouraged by the fact that it won nine in two matches this weekend.
Weather permitting, Wash. U. will finally get to play at home next weekend, hosting Division II Northwest Missouri State University, and will hope to string a few wins together heading into the business end of the season.