Hillis, men’s tennis exceed expectations at ITA Regionals

Matthew Friedman | Contributing Reporter

The Washington University men’s tennis team finished the fall phase of its 2018-19 season on a high note this weekend at the International Tennis Association Central Regionals, as sophomore Ethan Hillis made it to the tournament final and will face the University of Chicago’s Jeremy Yuan in the championship match Monday morning.

Despite being seeded sixth coming into the tournament, Hillis dominated all weekend and has yet to lose a set. In the tournament semifinals yesterday afternoon, he triumphed, 6-1, 6-1, over Kenyon College’s Jake Zalenski, the tournament’s top seed. Hillis led from the start, a strong backhand and steady mental presence propelling him to success.

A crucial moment came at the beginning of the second set, with Hillis serving. Zalenski fought to a deuce before a back-and-forth battle ensued, the only one of the match. After eight deuces, each sweatier than the one before it, Hillis came out ahead. He won the advantage with a variety of lobs and harder hits before sending an unreturnable scorcher across the court to secure the game.

Even at that point, Hillis had essentially won the match. “That first game of the second set was so big because [Hillis] had the momentum in his favor and could have lost it easily, but he kept it mentally together,” head coach Roger Follmer said after the match. “That’s going to be the key for him going forward, the mental composure.”

Zalenski kept fighting but seemed tired, pressing during the late parts of the second set and making unforced errors. Minutes later, Hillis sealed the deal with one of his strongest serves of the day. As Zalenski’s attempt at a return soared high and long out of play, the Bears’ bench erupted in cheers, excited to celebrate the upset victory.

The tournament was Hillis’ first with the Bears. A transfer from Amherst College, he has been practicing with the Red and Green for just over a month. Yet he already feels improvements in his game. “My whole mental game is just so much better than it was before,” he said. “I really love the coaching staff and everything that’s going on at Wash. U.”

Hillis was not the only Bear who played well this weekend. Junior Bernardo Neves won his first four matches, including one over freshman Sam Komis, before falling in the quarterfinals yesterday morning, 4-6, 1-6, to Yuan, whom Hillis will face in the championship tomorrow. “He played better than I did on a few important points, and that was it,” Neves said.

Still, he said, the quarterfinal finish was satisfying because it was a major improvement over his first round exit from last year’s regionals. Sophomore Ben van der Sman won three early matches before he was eliminated in the Round of 16, while senior Konrad Kozlowksi, after losing just four games in his first two matches, like Neves, fell to Yuan, 3-6, 3-6, in the Round of 32 on Saturday afternoon.

In one of the weekend’s most exciting matchups, freshman Luke McClelland upset Kenyon’s Austin Diehl, the fourth-seeded player in the tournament, defeating him 0-6, 6-2, 6-1 and making it all the way to the Round of 16. Sophomore Daniel Li also made it to the Round of 16, and the doubles duo of senior Radha Vishnubhotla and Neves made it to the quarterfinals.

That this year’s regionals were held in St. Louis provided the Red and Green with a unique opportunity to play on home courts during a major tournament. Some matches were held at the Tao Tennis Center on the Danforth Campus and at Westminster Christian Academy (a local high school), though most were played at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park. “It’s a lot of work for me to organize, but everyone loves coming to St. Louis—and it’s lots of fun,” Follmer said Sunday.

Getting to play just a mile from home made the weekend more enjoyable for the players, they said. “It’s definitely much easier to play when you’re close to home, especially now that there are more tests and everything in school,” said sophomore Mark Wu. The closeness of the tournament was an especially big logistical bonus when compared to the Hall of Fame tournament of two weeks ago held in Rhode Island, the players said; for that tournament, the players had been forced to miss two days of classes and had not returned until late Sunday night.

This weekend does mean the end of the fall tennis season, but the Red and Green never stop grinding. Follmer is not allowed to conduct practices before the spring season rolls around, but the players will be working out in the weight room and hopefully playing tennis on their own, he said. There is also the opportunity for organized tennis in the near future, however. If Hillis wins today against Yuan, not only will he have dethroned defending champion University of Chicago (which has not lost the ITA Regionals since 2014), but he will also be named an All-American and will play at the national ITA Oracle Cup later this fall.

The regional championship is today at 10:30 a.m. at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in Forest Park.