Jumbos fall to No. 1 Middlebury, bounce back against Bates

Junior Benjamin Battle hits a low backhand in the match again Amherst on April 1. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily

Playing through the heart of its schedule, Tufts fell to a trio of top-ranked opponents. In the span of a week, Tufts dropped matches to No. 4 Middlebury, No. 8 Wesleyan and No. 9 Williams. The team did manage to rebound, defeating No. 28 Bates on April 20.

“For a lot of us, it [was] our first experience playing some of the top teams,” first-year Zach Shaff said. “A lot of NESCAC teams are in the top 15 in the country, so we’re getting used to it.”

Playing on their familiar Voute Courts, Tufts got off to a strong start against Bates, winning two of the three doubles matches. The Bobcats were able to stay in the match by defeating Tufts’ juniors Rohan Gupte and Zain Ali in number one doubles. The Jumbos were able to secure the much-needed win by taking three singles matches. After first-year Nathan Niemiec and sophomore Ethan Chen recorded victories, Ali provided the clincher from the number two position.

Looking to rebound from back-to-back losses, the 20th-ranked Jumbos hosted the Williams Ephs on April 16. Despite a hard-fought match in which three of the six singles matches lasted three sets, Tufts ultimately fell 6-3. At number two in singles, Gupte recorded a comeback victory (5-7, 6-4, 7-6) after dropping the opening set. Shaff took his number four singles match (6-4, 2-6, 3-2) after his opponent retired with an injury midway through the third set.

Shaff’s play continued to be a highlight for the Jumbos, as he also won his doubles match (8-6) alongside senior Ben Battle. With victories against Bates, Williams and Wesleyan, the Shaff/Battle partnership improved to 8-3 on the season.

“[Ben’s] a really talented player … and he has a lot of experience, so it helps to learn from him,” Shaff said. “Even though I’m a [first-year], when I play with him I feel like we’re on the same page.”

The previous day, the Jumbos were edged 5-4 by the visiting Wesleyan Cardinals. Despite a 2-1 advantage in doubles, Tufts could not hold on for the win, dropping four of six singles matches.

One bright spot for the Jumbos was the play of Gupte — the team’s typical number one singles player — who was dropped to the number two spot by coach Karl Gregor following the match against Middlebury. By defeating Cardinals senior Michael Liu (6-4, 2-6, 6-2), Gupte snapped a streak of five consecutive singles losses dating back to March 21.

“You have to treat every match equally and respect every opponent you play,” Gupte said. “I think [the change] worked in our favor, but I just played like I usually [do].”

Junior Dan Coran also registered a three set victory in the number three singles match (5-7, 6-4, 10-6), but Tufts was unable to register an all-important fifth victory. The defeat was the Jumbos’ third this season in matches decided by a 5-4 scoreline, a fact that the team simultaneously laments and looks to for encouragement.

“We know that we’re right there with [these teams],” Gupte said. “If we’re able to clean a few things up, I think we could swing the matches in our favor.”

On April 9, the Jumbos got a taste of the top-10 competition, falling 7-2 to a stacked Middlebury Panthers side. Middlebury jumped out to a 2-1 lead in doubles and never looked back, winning five of six singles matches.

“We realize the importance of getting a strong start in doubles,” Shaff said. “In a lot of the matches, we’ve gone down in [doubles], and it’s [tended] to carry on in singles when it shouldn’t.”

It’s tough to pin the loss solely on Tufts’ lack of momentum, though, as Middlebury boasts an extremely talented lineup, led by sophomore Ludomir Cuba, the No. 2 ranked player in Div. III. The Panthers were pushed to three sets in just one of their five singles victories, although Niemiec continued his successful campaign, winning 6-2, 6-2 in the number five singles.

With its victory over Tufts, Middlebury improved to 5-0 in the NESCAC (15-1 overall) and jumped to No. 1 in the nation in the most recent Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings.

The recent results dropped Tufts to 3-4 in the highly competitive NESCAC (6-6 overall). The good news for the Jumbos is that the most difficult stretch of their schedule is behind them. Until the regular season finale against No. 4 Bowdoin, the highest ranked team that they will face is No. 34 Brandeis.

“If we keep playing like we have against the top teams, I think we’ll end up winning a lot more matches,” Gupte said.

Tufts will play a doubleheader on Saturday, taking on Hamilton and the Coast Guard Academy at home.