Hello from the Alabama Tennis Stadium,
It’s so common this time of year to hear how “everything has just flown by.” What seemed to have started so long ago in August is now in the home stretch of the academic year. Twenty-three matches have been played and one more is scheduled for Thursday, April 11 at 6pm. That date seemed like an eternity away from reality back in the fall semester but the day has arrived. Arkansas represents our 12th SEC opponent, 24th dual match and final regular season match. It is also Senior Night, where we honor our elder statesman from Egypt, Mazen Osama. Mazen’s mother Hanan has traveled long and far from Cairo to watch her son compete in his final home contest while many others in the community have been fortunate to witness her son’s career make an imprint in the Alabama tennis history books. I imagine it is a bit surreal to realize that four years have come and nearly all gone since she first said good-bye and good luck to Mazen back in August 2015. I vividly recall the night he arrived at the Birmingham Airport, sporting a big smile and kid-in-a-candy-store look as he traveled down the escalator. And now it culminates Thursday evening against the Hogs of Arkansas.
Mazen has been in a unique position since he stepped foot on campus. First, he was coming to college following a highly successful junior playing career and getting his feet wet on the ATP professional tour. What brought him to Alabama? Well, his private coach back in Cairo (Karim Zaher) was a member of the Crimson Tide tennis team from 1996-1999. So as far as Egypt might be from T-Town there were a few Roll Tides shouted thousands of miles from campus. Secondly, Mazen has always played in the #1 singles and #1 doubles slot. This isn’t an easy thing to do match after match and year after year. It is, however, a position that Mazen has thrived in and gained respect from peers and coaches in the SEC and around the country. Mazen has totaled 70 singles wins and 69 total doubles victories going into the Arkansas match. Last season, he became the first Singles All-American for Alabama since 2001 after his junior campaign in which he finished with the highest singles ranking in program history at No. 8 in the country. The Cairo, Egypt, native also became the first men’s player to advance to the Round of 16 of the 2018 NCAA Singles Tournament and took it a step further by moving on to the quarterfinals. He was also named the ITA National Player to Watch for his performance. In his career, he was a participant in three NCAA Doubles Tournaments, two NCAA Singles Tournaments, named First Team All-SEC on two separate occasions and named the ITA Southern Region Player to Watch twice. We still have another month to add to his accolades and the Crimson Tide-Razorback battle kicks off the last chapter in the book of Mazen.
Last weekend we returned home and hosted #2 Florida and #18 South Carolina. The Million Dollar Band was in attendance and played familiar tunes that created an electric atmosphere. Roll Tide and thank you Neal Flum, Assistant Director of Athletic Bands and Director of Pep Bands for the University of Alabama, for your constant support of and commitment to our tennis programs. Such a treat to have you and the MDB in the stands! The Gators proved to be a tough customer and edged us out on a few courts where I felt we could win. Bottom line they have a deep and tough team this year, competed with a high level of confidence and executed really well throughout the evening. Mazen, PK and Zhe all played outstanding and found themselves in 3-set affairs with their conference opponent. The final score may have read one thing but these matches were tightly contested and the guys really showed plenty of competitive fortitude. So once again there was plenty to build on as we faced the Gamecocks on Sunday. The Friday and Sunday matches also featured Crimson Racket Club cookouts where CRC treasurer and Alabama business professor, David Ford, cooked up tasty hamburgers, hot dogs and even grilled fish to hundreds of fans. He was supported by several volunteers including the Tuscaloosa Civinettes, Professor Peter Magnusson, Susan Gossett (Assistant Principal of Brookwood Middle School) and her Honors Society members, as well as other CRC members/volunteers like Colin Martin, a dear friend, neighbor and Bama Tennis super fan.
We had been fairly successful in doubles at the start of the season but had fallen into a funk in recent weeks. We stressed energy, energy and more energy on all courts and in all points. Robbie, Lalo and I felt we needed to have quick starts on all courts versus waiting for things to happen before getting our engines really moving. Patrick and Mazen were swinging away freely and provided the first doubles match for us. Zhe and Sam Fischer were up a break on court 3 while Edson and Riccardo were in a similar scenario on court 2. The guys served big, moved aggressively, returned serves with purpose and created havoc for the Gamecocks. Zhe and Sam crossed the finish line first and clinched the doubles point for the home team. Point Bama! Roll Tide!
Onto singles and the results appeared even across the board. We expected South Carolina to put up a great fight and continue the tradition of closely contested battles. They struck first on courts 1 & 3 to inch ahead 2-1. Meanwhile Zhe, Riccardo and Jeremy were up first sets and Edson had narrowly dropped his opening frame. The cheers grew louder and so did the intensity of the match. Zhe chalked up another impressive and gritty win with very effective serving to even the match at 2-2 while Edson had now broken out to a large 5-1 lead in the second set. Jeremy and Riccardo looked as though they could clinch things for the home team but South Carolina would not go down. Service breaks for us resulted in service breaks for them and the see-saw battle continued. Webster’s dictionary defines a Gamecock as a combatant that is specially bred and conditioned for increased stamina and strength. Well that certainly described our opposition but the Crimson Tide was ready for the challenge. Riccardo played aggressively and strong, driving his opponent back beyond the baseline with deep, topspin groundstrokes that resulted in short ball attacking opportunities. Our Italian sophomore inched ahead with a late service break of his own and served out the match to get us one point closer to victory.
Jeremy found himself up a break in his second set but was forced to a tiebreaker. Edson’s opponent had clawed his way back into their match and trailed 5-6 in the second set. Jeremy’s score continued it’s slow climb towards the magical number and he reached that goal serving 6-5. Following a well placed second serve, his opponent sent a return into the net and Jeremy raised his arms in celebration and collapsed to the court surface as his teammates stormed the court. Alabama 4, South Carolina 2. Match Bama! Roll Tide!
A well fought victory earned and completed by a pair of players (Riccardo & Jeremy) that were sick with the flu earlier in the week. They didn’t have enough gas in the tank to get the job done against Florida but they responded vigorously against South Carolina and led us to a valuable home win. It was a full team effort as the support from all the players and fans provided the extra push that we needed. There’s nothing like playing at home and we were grateful to end the weekend on an improved note.
So now we face the Razorbacks, aka the “Hogs”, in our final regular season match before we travel to Gainesville next week for the SEC Championships. We celebrate Mazen and his fine career as well as all of you that have supported us from near or afar. There’s still a lot more tennis to be played both at the conference tournament and the post-season so we shall forge forward with great pride and purpose. We’d love to see you for the Arkansas match but if you can’t make it, we will have live video streaming and live stats available online. Thanks for your passionate support and we’ll see you at the courts.