Hall of Fame Invite brings men’s tennis to Rhode Island grass courts

Matthew Friedman | Contributing Reporter

For some athletes, September sports mean football: tailgates and stadiums filled with cheering fans. For others, September sports mean the start of a grueling soccer season and practices in the still-humid St. Louis afternoons. Only for a select few athletes do September sports mean a trip to a Hall of Fame Invitational.

This weekend, four members of the Washington University men’s tennis team traveled to Newport, R.I., for the third annual Hall of Fame Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Grass Court Invitational. The four athletes, seniors Konrad Kozlowski and Radha Vishnubhotla, junior Bernardo Neves and sophomore Benjamin van der Sman, competed against players from Bowdoin College, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) Colleges and Trinity University in a showdown of the nation’s best Division III tennis players.

The Red and Green performed well throughout the weekend, collecting ten wins and just six losses over the three days of play. Used to playing on concrete courts and the occasional clay court, the players got the chance to play on grass courts for the first time. It was a “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Kozlowski said.

Mental preparation for the unfamiliar courts in the days leading up to the tournament—Kozlowski said last week that he was ready to be more aggressive and play more closely to the net—paved the way for early success. On Friday, he defeated Bowdoin’s Evan Fortier handily, 6-1, 6-3, while Vishnubhotla, the only player with grass court experience, also triumphed over a Bowdoin opponent, Alan Delman, 6-3, 7-5. Last May, Bowdoin eliminated the Bears from the NCAA playoffs, sweeping them 5-0 in the Division III quarterfinals, so this weekend’s victories provided a sort of glorious revenge.

“It was definitely much more satisfying than beating someone from any other team, because we’ve played [Bowdoin] in the playoffs the past couple years and lost three straight matches,” Kozlowski said.

Kozlowski and Vishnubhotla each only lost one match all weekend. On Saturday, Kozlowski and van der Sman fell 9-8 to CMS in a tight doubles match. Then, in an exhilarating group final on Sunday morning, Kozlowski beat Vishnubhotla, 7-5, 7-6.

“It was a really great match with lots of back and forth,” head coach Roger Follmer said.

The two younger players, Neves and van der Sman, dropped their singles matches on Friday in the top-ranked bracket, but fought hard throughout the weekend. Neves, who finished last season the sixth-ranked singles player in the Division III Central Region, partnered with Vishnubhotla on Friday in an 8-4 defeat of the Trinity duo of Wilson Hamilton and Cameron Krimbill, while van der Sman won in dominant straight sets, 6-1, 6-1, over Hamilton in a singles match on Saturday. On Sunday, both Neves and van der Sman captured straight set victories over Trinity.

“Ben had a bumpy start on Friday, trying a few too many ground strokes on the grass, but then really played better the next two days,” Follmer said. “All the guys finished playing really well and it was a really great experience.”

There was more to the weekend than the tennis. The courts themselves are full of history. In 1881, they were home to the inaugural U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championship, which eventually became the U.S. Open. The tournament also allowed the players free access to the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which is conveniently located in idyllic downtown Newport. The team, including Follmer and assistant coach Mike Merbaum, stayed with a local family in their 5,600-square-foot mansion, which Kozlowski said was quite a change from the typical Washington University housing.

This year was the first time Division III teams had been invited to compete at the ITA Grass Court Invitational. According to the Tennis Recruiting Network (TRN), the Bears have played at national tournaments in the past, though nothing as high-profile as this weekend’s. In 2020, TRN reported earlier this month, the team will travel to Hawaii for matches against CMS and Trinity.

The tournament finished the summer season on a high note for the Bears, but the team does not have to wait long for more intense matches. Though the Division III season does not begin until February, the ITA Central Regional, one of the year’s most important tournaments, is right around the corner. Wash. U. will host that tournament Sept. 28-30, giving the weary travelers two weeks to re-adjust to life away from the grass courts, seaside charm and 5,600-square foot mansions at the Hall of Fame.