Hello Tennis Tide Faithful,
What a physically demanding, mentally challenging and fun-filled weekend for us as we competed in four matches over three days to open the 2019 semester. Not a typical start to a season, but as I said in last week’s Net News, a definite entry to the “heavyweight division” of college tennis with Michigan standing in the opposite corner of the ring. The Wolverines were a 2018 NCAA Sweet Sixteen team looking to keep their standard of success at and beyond that level. Well Saturday’s main event did not disappoint as it was filled with excitement from the start of doubles and throughout singles play. Many thanks to David Ford, Crimson Racket Club Treasurer and Management Professor for helping to organize an outing for the Culverhouse College of Business. Some folks were making a return visit to a Bama tennis match while others were chalking up their first experience. Very cool! Dr. Lou Marino, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management served up our first honorary serve and the season had officially begun. Ace!
In doubles action the Wolverines were ready to go and they came out firing. Loud shouts of “Go! Blue!” echoed throughout the building as they worked hard to create a home environment for their squad. I felt our guys responded very well staying focused and sticking to their game plans. Despite immediately going down service breaks on courts 1 & 3, Mazen/Patrick and Zhe/Edson retaliated and pushed their matches to tiebreakers. After Alexey/Thibault dropped a tough contest on court 2, the attention shifted to the ensuing breakers which would reward a coveted opening team point. First serves proved big as did well-executed service return/poaching volley combinations which swung the momentum in our favor and ultimately to victory, 7-4 and 7-3. Point Bama! Roll Tide! Alabama 1, Michigan 0.
Following a quick pep talk, we headed back on court determined to keep the Tide rising toward a win. There wasn’t much separating us and the Wolverines. Points, games and sets were very close across the board. A couple of guys, Mazen and Edson, started to get their groove on and push Alabama a bit closer to victory with impressive straight set wins. Point Bama! Roll Tide! Alabama 3, Michigan 0. The Wolverines would not be denied their opportunity to keep this fight going and claimed two points of their own on courts 4 & 5. Now it was down to Zhe and Patrick…body blow, jab, uppercut, etc. Keep the gloves up and don’t stop moving those feet. Patrick had won his first set, but then his opponent captured set 2, which forced a final frame. On court 6, Zhe had narrowly won the first set in a tiebreaker and was about to enter a similar situation in set 2. After winning the first point of the TB, Zhe went down 1-6. “Go! Blue!” and “Michigan!” could be heard loud and clear following every point. Our NCAA Sweet 16 hero, however, was not rattled. In fact, Zhe just kept swinging and competing which led to him winning 6 straight points, followed by 2 of the next 3 for a 9-7 TB tally. Match Bama! Roll Tide! The team stormed the court and celebrated a thrilling finish to the home opener.
The day was not done, however, as we had a second match scheduled against UT-Chattanooga. So it was back to work with rest, hydration, refueling and a quick uniform change before we faced the Mocs less than a couple of hours later. UT-Chattanooga, led by Chuck Merzbacher, were well-coached and hungry group. Our guys met the challenge head on and as Coach Avery Johnson would say, #buckledup. After capturing the doubles point, Mazen led the charge in sweeping the singles while Riccardo, Alexey and Jeremy all earned their first wins of the 2019 season (Edson and Zhe also claimed victories). Alabama 7, UT Chattanooga 0. Match Bama! Roll Tide!
After a heavy recovery day on Sunday that also included a lite hit-around, the team was returned to the courts with Charlotte and North Alabama in town. The 49ers (Charlotte) had narrowly lost to Tennessee a couple days earlier, 4-3, so we knew this was going to be another battle. Tuscaloosa Tennis Association (TTA) board member Calvin Goodman struck the honorary first serve and it was game on. The energy and intensity to start the match was at a very high level and the 49ers replicated the Wolverines’ attempt to make our house theirs…ummm, not allowed. High first serve percentages and strong returns of serve led to aggressive net play…that’s a good combo. The Mazen/Patrick and Edson/Zhe duos were dynamic and quick out of the gates pushing us to a 1-0 lead.
The initial stages of singles action saw Charlotte display a very aggressive playing style with a determined presence to not only make this close, but to do one point better than at Tennessee. Mazen and Alexey were defeated on their courts, however, roommates/teammates/doubles partners, Edson and Zhe, responded to the Bama battle cry. They each tallied impressive wins and swung the lead back our way. Two matches remained – Thibault and Patrick – both of which were headed to deciding 3rd sets. Teammates lined the courts to cheer but something different took place with our guys. They calmly raised their arms and held out their hands showing just 3 fingers on each. This was much like Alabama players, coaches and fans would do at the start of the 4th quarter of a game. The three fingers were the symbol of the 3rd Set Program established by our fitness coach Evan Van Nostrand. The program was designed to be an effective method for generating not only physical toughness, but mental toughness just like our football squad. Under Van’s leadership and coaching, our players prepared themselves, both mentally and physically, for any obstacle that might come their way. What had begun as a pilot program last summer, was then launched during the fall and had a noticeable impact on each of the players. Van dedicated himself to make the 3rd Set Program a necessary and invaluable asset in our players’ development and we now got to see it on display against Charlotte. Patrick and Thibault did not disappoint with their focus nor execution while their teammates continued to hold up three fingers throughout the final frame. Patrick was first to finish and clinched the match 6-1 in the final set and gave Alabama another victory. Match Bama! Roll Tide!
Once again, like on Saturday we had another match to play later than evening. The Lions of North Alabama who had recently completed the transition from D2 to D1, were up in lights and ready to roar. I told the team to maintain their focus and remember a familiar quote – “it’s not how we start, it’s how we finish.” I knew they were tired from the three previous matches over a two day stretch but confident they would complete a successful first weekend. They had a good warm-up and the show soon began. First serves, first volleys, returns and poaches were on point in doubles, while the singles portion displayed aggressive first strike tennis following big serves and 2nd serve returns. The team really put together an impressive ending to the night. Sam Fischer earned his first singles victory of the season and joined Jeremy as co-MVPs of the contest. Match Bama! Roll Tide!
After a thorough recovery session managed by our athletic trainer, Katie Wheeler (aka “Mom”), the boys had a tasty post-match meal and were ready for bed. What a weekend and solid start to 2019. Plenty of room to grow and improve with singles and doubles play with many opportunities ahead to #GetBetter.
So this weekend we face a pair of outstanding programs rich with tradition and success in college tennis – Northwestern and Harvard. Last time out against both teams, Alabama scored a loss and win. In 2012 at the grand opening of the Roberta Alison Baumgardner Indoor Tennis Facility, the Wildcats (Northwestern) edged the Tide 4-3. While in my first season at Alabama, we faced the Crimson (Harvard) at the USTA National Training Center (site of the U.S. Open) and stole a 4-3 win of our own. In addition to our matches on Friday at 6pm vs. Northwestern and Sunday at 1pm vs. Harvard, Auburn will also be included in the weekend’s action as they play Friday at 1pm vs. Harvard and Sunday at 9am vs. Northwestern. Sandwiched in between both of those days will be a women’s doubleheader on Saturday (10am vs. Mercer, 4pm vs. Alabama A&M). So plenty of tennis for all to enjoy again at the R.A.B. I hope to see those seats filled and have the place rockin’ with plenty of cheers and shouts of…
Match Bama! Roll Tide!
See you there,