After losing top doubles player to Achilles injury, men’s tennis comes fourth at indoors

| Senior Sports Editor

At the national indoor championships in St. Peter, Minn., on Friday, things had gone well for the No. 9 Washington University men’s tennis team through the first few minutes of doubles. Junior Benjamin van der Sman and senior Bernardo Neves had battled back from being down to their Brandeis University opponents and were serving for the win at 7-5. Van der Sman hustled back to return a ball from behind the baseline before falling to the court.

Photo by Curran Neenan

Head coach Roger Follmer, who was coaching players a few courts over, saw that van der Sman had fallen and watched him struggle to get up. He hoped that it was just an ankle injury, the kind where you can circle a bone in athletic tape and move on with life. It was not. Van der Sman had torn his Achilles tendon, rendering himself incapacitated for the match, the rest of the weekend and the entire season.

The Bears never recovered from the early shock. They lost to No. 8 Brandeis, 7-2, putting them into the consolation bracket. Though they rebounded to beat No. 20 Gustavus Adolphus College on Saturday and advance to the consolation finals, the Bears then fell to No. 12 Case Western Reserve University on Sunday, 5-2, putting them fourth of the field of eight.

“The kids rallied the best they could,” Follmer said Sunday.

Coming into this weekend’s indoor national championship, the team had lost just three doubles matches through its first three competitions this season. Follmer and the players had emphasized doubles play throughout the team’s preseason practices and early season matches against a Division I opponent and ranked Division III teams. Losing van der Sman until next season will continue to foster uncertainty for the Bears.

Without van der Sman, who was named a University Athletic Association Athlete of the Week Feb 17., there was a hole that the Bears had to scramble to fill. Senior captain J.J. Kroot filled in against Gustavus Adolphus and Case, helping Neves to two wins, but those were the only doubles victories got on the weekend. Since Kroot had not played much competitive doubles recently, the move forced the pair of sophomore Sam Komis and junior Daniel Li into the top doubles spot, where they struggled, losing 8-6 and 8-4.

The third doubles pairing, juniors Ethan Hillis and Mark Wu, lost all three of their matches, though they fought Gustavus Adolphus to an 11-9 tiebreak. Follmer said he was impressed with the ways Hillis has improved as a doubles player. “What he is doing and how he’s behaving in doubles—the demeanor in doubles—is getting better,” he said, observing how Hillis has always been successful in singles but has had room for progress in his doubles communication. “That’s all I can ask for.”

Hillis’s singles prowess was evident in Minnesota, as he beat two individually-ranked players in the top singles match both Friday and Saturday and was making a strong comeback before his match was left unfinished on Sunday. Kroot and junior Koki Takabatake also performed well, each going 2-1 on the weekend in singles.

Despite the doubles trouble, the team’s victory over Gustavus Adolphus pleased Follmer. The win was the first time Follmer recalled the Bears had beaten the Golden Gusties at the Gustavus home court. “I remember when I first started the job 19 years ago they were [number] one in our region and top five in the country. As a new coach, I wanted to play the best. So we went up there and they beat us 6-1 in their backyard,” he said. “We had never beaten them in their backyard until yesterday.”

Follmer focused on how van der Sman handled the injury in stride. “[Ben] handled it really well, he really did,” he said. Van der Sman is from Minnesota, so he had support both from his real family and his tennis family, according to Follmer. Still, the coach expressed disappointment. “It’s just such a bummer, especially when he’s been playing so well. He was having a great year,” Follmer said, highlighting van der Sman’s two wins last weekend against No. 13 Southwest Baptist University.

The team’s first opportunity to iron out its doubles future will come the first weekend of March, when the Red and Green will partake in the 131st Annual Pacific Coast Doubles Championship in La Jolla, Ca. March 5-8 and take on No. 2 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges. Follmer said that the tournament, which will be the Bears’ first opportunity to play outdoors this year, will allow the team to see where it needs to make small adjustments to doubles as the season progresses. “It’s just a little bit of going back to the drawing board,” he said.

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