Until this weekend, Penn men’s tennis had yet to play a tournament in the 2016 season at full strength.
Its veteran star, senior Vim De Alwis, was recovering from knee surgery after getting injured late in the 2015 season, and Russian rookie sensation Dmitry Shatalin was stuck sorting through NCAA clearance bureaucracy. In their absence, the Quakers (3-6) struggled to hit their stride.
This weekend, however, the pieces started to fall into place for Penn. On the first day of the weekend-long Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament hosted at Penn’s Hecht Tennis Center, the Red and Blue upset No. 34 Dartmouth, 4-3. Heading into the match on Friday, Penn was undoubtedly the underdog, as the Big Green (6-4) tied for second in the Ivy League last year.
But coach David Geatz had faith that the addition of De Alwis and Shatalin would remedy his team’s February doldrums.
“We got way better when we added Vim back to our lineup, because he’s one of our best players,” Geatz said. “And we need to get Dmitry.”
Like Geatz, the Quakers would not be discouraged by their opponent’s ranking. On the doubles side, Penn’s sole win came from the pairing of sophomore Nicholai Westergaard and senior Austin Kaplan, and the Big Green took the advantage to start the match.
The singles competition would prove much fiercer. De Alwis, sophomore Josh Pompan and junior Matt Nardella tallied wins in straight sets to put Penn on the board, but Dartmouth captured the match points from the fifth and sixth spots, tying the match at 3-3.
The fate of the match was left in the hands of freshman Kyle Mautner, who was tasked with dispatching 2015 Ivy League Player of the Year Dovydas Sakinis. After dropping the first set, 6-3, Mautner rallied back to capture the next two sets, 6-4, 6-4, thus winning the match for Penn.
“We had a big win over Dartmouth,” De Alwis said. “Up until this tournament, we haven’t had great results, but it’s huge for us to play the other Ivies and who are ranked really high this year.”
The following day, Penn faced No. 45 Princeton — the team’s biggest Ancient Eight rival. In the semifinal match, Penn hung with the Tigers (8-2) through six matches with the score deadlocked at 3-3 with just Pompan left to play at the No. 3 singles spot. After capturing the first set, 7-5, Pompan was unable to force a repeat of Friday’s Cinderella ending, falling to Alexander Day in the next two sets 7-5, 6-3. Princeton would go on to win the tournament on Sunday.
On Sunday, Penn lost to No. 32 Harvard 5-2 in the tournament’s third place match. Despite the loss to the Crimson (8-4), Geatz’s team was far from discouraged from its weekend results.
“I’m definitely proud of the way we played,” De Alwis said. “When you lose 4-3, it’s just a couple of points here and there. You can’t be disappointed — sometimes you win those matches, sometimes you lose.”
Although it is still early in the 2016 season, the ECAC Tournament is indicative of the stiff Ancient Eight competition to come after spring break.
“I think Princeton is really good. Columbia is obviously very good. Harvard is one of the top-30 teams in the country. I think Dartmouth is very good. Cornell is good — there’s a whole bunch of good teams,” Geatz said.
The Ivy League is perennially one of the best tennis conferences in the nation — last year five Ivy teams finished in the top 50 of ITA rankings. Due to this preponderance of talent, the only thing predictable about the Ivy League is its unpredictability.
As Gaetz says, “It’s really going to be an interesting year.”
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