Promising season for men’s tennis ends prematurely

Rising senior Jack Friend hits the ball during men's tennis game against Bates on April 20. Angelie Xiong / The Tufts Daily

The No. 16 Jumbos flashed plenty of potential throughout the 2017 season, but a few missed opportunities proved costly with a schedule that had little margin for error. In splitting its final two matches against No. 19 Brandeis (a 6-3 victory) and No. 7 Bowdoin (a 5-4 loss), the team solidified a 9-7 record while displaying many of the same tendencies that defined its season.

On April 29, the Jumbos traveled to Brunswick, Maine to take on the defending national champion Bowdoin Polar Bears (18-4). Tufts’ rising seniors Rohan Gupte and Zain Ali were victorious in first doubles, as was the second doubles duo of graduating senior tri-captain Ben Battle and rising sophomore Zach Shaff. Battle and Shaff began playing together at the beginning of the spring season, and their partnership was a revelation for the Jumbos with a final record of 9-3.

“It was great playing with Zach,” Battle said. “I was pleasantly surprised at how he adapted … because doubles is the type of thing where experience really matters. He learned quickly.”

Despite their early advantage, the Jumbos couldn’t hang on, winning just two of six singles matches. Of the six matches, four lasted a full three sets. Gupte and Shaff each registered their second victories of the day in first and fourth singles, respectively, but Bowdoin’s rising senior Kyle Wolfe defeated rising senior Dan Coran (5-7, 7-5, 6-1) to clinch the win for the hosts.

“We played just about as well as we could’ve,”coach Karl Gregor said. “We were probably a game away from winning the match.”

The previous day, Tufts recorded a 6-3 victory over a red hot Brandeis Judges (12-8) squad that had lost just once since April 1. With wins from the second and third doubles pairings, the Jumbos jumped out to a quick 2-1 lead. Ali (2-6, 6-1, 6-4) and Coran (6-4, 7-5) defeated their Judges opponents in second and third singles, respectively, while rising sophomore Nathan Niemiec (7-5, 6-2) and rising junior Ethan Chen (6-3, 6-2) added victories to seal the team’s win.

“Even though they’re not in our conference, [Brandeis] is a match that we get up for every year,” Gregor said. “We came out and played strong. We were the tougher, more competitive team.”

With the victory, the Jumbos finished the season undefeated (9-0) against teams outside the top 14 in the country. Highlights included a win over No. 37 Colby during the team’s annual trip to Southern California and a key victory over No. 28 Bates in mid April. The flip side of the coin was the Jumbos’ 0-7 record against top-14 ranked teams, a mark that included losses to No. 6 University of Chicago, No. 12 Pomona-Pitzer and a quintet of NESCAC rivals. Of those seven defeats, four came in 5-4 decisions.

“If we want to be top 10 ourselves, we’ve got to win one or two of those,” Gregor said. “We have to [bring] our A game every day if we expect to win those matches, and that’s very difficult.”

Due to the selection process, which prioritizes regular season match-ups over records, the Jumbos’ 4-5 record in the highly competitive NESCAC did not qualify them for the conference tournament. It was the first time in five years — and first in Gregor’s tenure — that the team failed to qualify for the postseason.

“We were playing our best tennis down the stretch,” Gregor said. “That’s what hurts most about not making NESCACs. We were starting to peak … and would’ve been in a good place to make a run.”

The silver lining is that the team will return nearly its entire starting lineup next season, and the postseason snub should provide plenty of motivation.

“It left a bitter taste in our mouths,” Gregor said. “I’m excited about the prospects for next year. Everybody seems poised to come back stronger because they don’t want to let something like this happen again.”

However, the Jumbos will be without the leadership of its graduating senior tri-captains — Battle, Kevin Kelly and Austin Bendetson — which is a loss that cannot be underestimated.

“The two of them complemented each other,” Gregor said. “This was by far the smoothest season we’ve had in my years as coach, and a big part of that is due to Bendy and Kevin.”

Battle explained that his fellow captains have had a massive impact on the program in their shared four years.

“Austin is the ultimate team player … and really embodies his role [as a leader] the last few years,” Battle said. “Kevin has the biggest heart. His defining quality is his ability to always put others before himself. I’m lucky to know both him and Austin, and have learned so much from them.”