It was a much-needed turnaround.
Following a disappointing trip to Seattle last weekend that produced losses to both East Tennessee State and Washington, Penn men’s tennis was in desperate need of a spark to kick-start a season full of expectations and promise.
In Saturday’s match at the Hecht Tennis Center against Middle Tennessee State, they got just that. A 5-2 victory for the Red and Blue (2-2) advances them to .500 on the season while preparation for the Ivy League schedule continues.
The atmosphere felt different in the facility right from the start. With a raucous crowd in attendance to see the Quakers take on the Blue Raiders (2-2), the energy was right behind Penn with every serve and return.
“We got into it early today,” sophomore Nicholai Westergaard said. “The energy was higher than usual, it definitely helps get the adrenaline flowing.”
Westergaard was one of four Penn players — joining freshman Kyle Mautner, junior Matt Nardella and senior Blaine Willenborg — to win their singles match on the day, the most since the opening weekend 7-0 sweep of Navy. These four wins coupled with the ever-important doubles point to begin the meet added up to one thing: an emphatic Penn triumph.
Doubles matches had been a point of inconsistency for the Red and Blue, but the the reliable pairing of Westergaard and senior Austin Kaplan- undefeated in three matches together this season- had been a bright spot for the Red and Blue.
However, when the duo dropped its doubles match 6-4 on Saturday, the Quakers could have easily become disheartened. Instead, the other two doubles teams of junior Thomas Spratt/Willenborg and Mautner/Nardella pulled off key 7-6 and 6-3 victories to secure the doubles point for Penn.
As singles play began, all eyes were on Mautner. The Greenwich, Conn., native has been a revelation during his first season in University City, featuring strong performances in every match leading up to Saturday’s contest.
Against Middle Tennessee’s top player of senior Dima Zyhmantovich, Mautner had his work cut out for him. However, the sparkling freshman impressed onlookers once again with a performance worthy of the No. 1 slot in Penn’s singles ladder. After a hard-fought 6-4 win in the first set, the second set stood at 5-3 with Mautner one game away from a win. Zyhmantovich had the serve and was pounding the ball with immense power, but Mautner’s return accuracy was giving him fits. After several long points, the score ran to 30-40, match point for Mautner.
And what a point it was.
Zyhmantovich’s serve sent Mautner sprawling to his right, out of the court’s boundaries. Mautner’s return went across court, and Zyhmantovich confidently laced the ball down the opposite touchline. Despite being an unreachable shot for most players, Mautner raced to his left and dinked the ball over the net, sending Zyhmantovich racing forward.
What happened next had every spectator in the arena glued to the rally.
Zyhmantovich executed a perfect slice shot, placed delicately in the corner of the field of play.
“He hit a pretty good slice into the corner,” Mautner said. “I wasn’t sure if I could get there. It left me with no option but to go for the lob.”
The lob over Zyhmantovich was too well struck for a return, and the crowd erupted into cheers.
Game, set and match to Mautner.
A win for the Quakers felt especially sweet after a week of determined training, as assistant coach Brian Ward pointed out.
“We knew what we needed to fix this week,” Ward said. “The guys put in the extra time to tweak little things, and I think it’s starting to show.”
Up next for the Red and Blue is Old Dominion, another contest that should be a barometer for how far the Penn squad has progressed.
“I’m really excited for Old Dominion,” Mautner said. “They’ll be one of the toughest teams we play.”
“We know that our competition going forward will be good,” Ward added.
“We’re just going to have to continue to play well and improve.”
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