Roll Tide from Starkvegas,
On the road again, and this time, our travels take us west to Starkville, Mississippi. This is a split week where we play one match away (at Mississippi State) and then return home to host Ole Miss. So it’s state vs. state rivalry week.
The maroon and white are defending SEC Tournament champions and currently ranked #10 nationally. Like us, they returned everyone from their lineup of a year ago and have been ranked as high as #3 this season. They are tough, top to bottom, and playing at home will present another challenge. Ole Miss travels to Tuscaloosa for a 1pm match on Saturday for our second meeting with the Rebels (the first being at the Blue Gray Tennis Classic last month). We only had two days of training this week but the practices were focused and productive. We are ready to return to the courts and compete.
Last weekend was our first SEC road trip as we faced Kentucky in Lexington and inside the friendly confines of the Boone Indoor Tennis Center. Plenty of snow fell Thursday night which was nice to see throughout the town but it also meant playing indoors on four, fast paced courts. Our #5 & #6 singles matches would have to wait to come on until a match ahead of them completed, something we had never experienced as a team. Suddenly, the Boone Tennis Center didn’t seem so friendly. Doubles began in a positive way on court #1 with Patrick and Mazen defeating a strong serving pair of opponents while we suffered a setback on court #2. Riccardo and Thibault were locked at 3-3 when the Cats claimed a break which led them to a one point lead heading into the singles portion. Points were quick, flashy and successful for Kentucky as they seemed to execute one point after another with conviction.
Singles waged on with a similar theme as doubles. We had chances to get settled in and sink our teeth into the matches, however, we got close and the Cats responded better than we did. Mazen fell on court #1, while Edson and Thibault did the same on their respective courts. Patrick battled to a third set while Zhe and Jeremy began their matches. Kentucky was well known for creating havoc and being one of the toughest places to play in the country. If our team didn’t know it before the match, they certainly found out during. Jeremy and Zhe were bright spots for us as they defeated their opponents in hard fought matches. Jeremy outslugged his opponent in two tightly contested sets while Zhe battled cramps in his final frame before willing his way to victory. Following the match we discussed our effort and ability to handle uncomfortable situations. I felt while conditions were different and tough, we could have done a better job of managing our time and game plans. Figuring out solutions to problems in tough conditions can be very challenging yet it is something we aim to accomplish each day in practice. The end result was not what we wanted but it definitely fed us food for thought as we would need to respond differently on Sunday in Nashville.
We arrived in Music City, U.S.A. smack in the middle of a huge rainstorm. Several inches pounded the pavement and created for quite an ugly day. We had a good hit inside the Currey Tennis Center which wasn’t ideal since Sunday’s forecast called for sunshine. So our first opportunity to hit outdoors was on match day. Be that as it may our guys were loose and struck the ball well during the training session. We met up with Sam’s parents, Martin and Dana Fischer, which was fun as it’s always nice to see family, friends and fans on the road. The following day we saw several other Alabama Tennis fans in attendance cheering on the Tide. Special thanks to CRC members Colin Martin and his sons, Ben and Jack, as well as the Thom Family, Matt, Brooklyn, Kate, Maggie and Will. Former Alabama tennis player Geoff Hiscox (’03) flew south from Canada for Spring Break together with his fiancé Madeline. They both had watched Alabama in years past, the last time being in 2016 when we played in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines. A super effort by all and very much appreciated.
Onto the match with the Commodores, an opponent we had wrestled with to very close matches over the years. They were disciplined, determined and diligent year in and year out. I didn’t envision this season’s match to be any different and communicated that with the guys before doubles play. The sun shined bright and there was a cool breeze in the air too. It was so nice to be outdoors again after two consecutive indoor contests over the past couple of weekends. Kick in Spring! We dropped our doubles match rather quickly on court #3 while courts #1 and #2 were neck and neck. Alexey and Riccardo were first to the finish line on their court with a late service break to claim victory. Riccardo’s returns were on point which set up some put away volleys by Alexey. Our top duo in Patrick and Mazen added a similar result. Patrick looked possessed on court with aggressive returns and closing on the net. Volley and overhead winners were plentiful for our Finnish phenom which led to a clinch of the doubles point. Point Bama! Roll Tide!
Singles was like a heavyweight bout filled with 15 rounds of action. While the courts were much slower at the Currey Tennis Center than at the Boone Indoor (in Lexington) and presented a physically challenge, our guys embraced it with open arms. I was really impressed with their resilience and drive. They showed spirit at all times whether they won or lost a point. There were several momentum shifts throughout the afternoon with the final swing finishing in our favor. Jeremy was first off after a convincing win on court #6. He pumped his racket in the air in victory while most of his teammates had just begun their second sets. His win gave us an early 2-0 lead but Vanderbilt was ready to put up a couple points of their own. Zhe lost a tight battle on court #4 bringing the score to 2-1 Alabama, while the final four matches were all heading to a third set. The match could go either way at this point and there were several moments where you simply didn’t know what was going to happen.
Three of our guys – Mazen, Patrick and Riccardo – all claimed second sets by the narrowest of margins to force third frames, while Edson dropped his second set that resulted in him going the distance as well. Outstretched arms with three fingers were raised by teammates watching on the sidelines as the day’s outcome would soon be determined. Patrick was narrowly defeated in his contest while Edson and Ricky surged ahead with their eyes on an Alabama victory. Mazen was dead even in his match and the cheers rang throughout the facility to provide a hopeful extra boost towards the finish line – ALA! BAMA!, Let’s Go Mazzy, Let’s Go!, Forza Bello!, Vamos!, Let’s Go Bama, Let’s Go! Edson was first to score another point for us with a resounding 6-1 third set. Point Bama! Roll Tide! Riccardo was locked in and swinging away with purposeful execution. He added a second service break at 5-2 up, with a bullet down-the-line backhand winner and an eruption of emotion that clinched the match for us. Match Bama! Roll Tide!
With the victory in hand at 4-2, Mazen still had the opportunity to finish his match. He saved three match points serving at 4-5, 15-40 and then followed up that stellar hold with a service break to go up 6-5. He was determined to close out the match and claim victory on the same court that saw him suffer defeat two years earlier (in a match won by Vandy 4-3). He was locked in…and a locked in Mazen is a pretty tough customer. He served out the match, raised his arms in jubilation, followed by a fist pump and several hugs from the coaches and players. Alabama 5, Vandy 2. What an effort by all as the scoreboard told the story. Following a thorough recovery session with athletic trainer and team mom Katie Wheeler, we enjoyed a very tasty meal at San Antonio Taco Shop where plenty of food was consumed before our smooth drive home to T-Town.
The progress delivered by this group continues to head in the right direction. And now that direction is west to Mississippi State for another SEC tug-of-war. Inclement weather has moved our match time to 1pm and Mother Nature may provide some challenges as indoor courts are not available in Starkville. So we must stay patient, resilient and embrace the opportunity in front of us. Live stats and video will be available so follow us there if you can’t make it to Starkvegas. For those of you coming back from Spring Break vacations or already in Tuscaloosa, be sure to join us on Saturday against Ole Miss at 1pm. We’re the only sporting event taking place on campus this weekend so I couldn’t think of a better way to spend your afternoon.
Thanks again to those that joined us on the road and as always…