While most students were trying to relax and enjoy their fall break this past weekend, Penn men’s and women’s tennis were hard at work in the ITA Northeast Regional Championships.
The Quakers hosted the men’s tournament, and the women made a short road trip to Princeton. The teams had eight and four players, respectively, compete across the singles and doubles brackets of the tournament, in a field that showcased all of the top players from across the Ivy League as well as the entire Northeast region.
In the men’s singles tournament, where the Red and Blue had seven players competing in a field of 96, only juniors Edoardo Graziani and Harsh Parikh were able to reach the Round of 32. In this third round of the tournament, Parikh suffered a heartbreaking defeat (5-7, 6-1, 6-7(2)) in a third set tiebreaker to Harvard’s Ronan Jachuck. Meanwhile, Graziani cruised all the way to the quarterfinals without conceding a single set in the tournament, but finally met his match in Harvard’s standout first-year Daniel Milavsky, to whom he lost in straight sets (3-6, 2-6).
Looking at the men’s doubles bracket, coach David Geatz had three pairings — Graziani/Zhu, Gupta/Parikh, and Hildebrandt/Smith — competing in this tournament. The Hildebrandt/Smith team was forced to retire in the Round of 32 due to an injury suffered by Jason Hildebrandt in the Singles’s Round of 64; there is still no word on the severity of the injury and how much time he could miss.
Aditya Gupta and Harsh Parikh -- who both lost in tightly contested, three-set matches in the singles tournament -- suffered a similar fate in the doubles Round of 32, losing in a nail-biter (6-8) to Giuseppe De Camelis and Carl Gustavson of St. John's University.
It is safe to say, however, that the Edoardo Graziani/Kevin Zhu duo was the highlight of Penn men’s tennis this weekend. Being a top-8 seed in the tournament of 56 teams, Graziani and Zhu definitely lived up to expectations. They fought valiantly all the way through to the semifinals, where they suffered a heartbreaking loss to a Cornell duo composed of Vladislav Melnic and Alafia Ayeni in a 10-point tiebreaker after splitting the first two sets with them (6-1, 2-6, 7-10).
“I was happy with how hard the guys competed," Gaetz said in a statement. "We had a few good wins but also a few heart-breaking close losses… We are going to get back to the practice courts, work hard and get ready for our next event at Liberty [in] the first week of November."
Women’s tennis had a slightly different narrative, especially given the fact that there was a higher level of expectation for all four players in the tournament. Senior Iuliia Bryzgalova and standout freshman Sabine Rutlauka represented the Quakers in the singles bracket, and then teamed up with graduate student Marija Curnic and junior Amanda Chan, respectively, in the doubles bracket.
The Bryzgalova/Curnic duo came into the tournament looking to repeat their magic from their ITA Northeast Regional Championship run in 2019, where they won it all. Meanwhile, the Chan/Rutlauka pair was looking to keep demonstrating their potential going forward as they did in the ITA Northeast Regional, where they won their doubles bracket.
Ultimately, both teams fell just short of the championship match, both losing in the semifinal round. Chan and Rutlauka lost in straight sets (2-6, 4-6) to Yale’s Jessie Gong and Chelsea Kung, while the former champions, Bryzgalova and Curnic, lost (1-6, 2-6) to the eventual champions from Princeton, Daria Frayman and Grace Joyce.
“Are we at our prime right now? No. But that’s expected in October of the semester after going all this time without playing," coach Sanela Kunovac said. "I feel that the Marija and Iuliia pair, at full strength, are a top-15, top-20 team in the country… We have a long season ahead of us and we’ll give them a chance to find their right gear.”
The women’s singles tournament can be seen as a glimpse of the stars of the present and the future of Penn’s program. Bryzgalova and Rutlauka both made runs to the tournament quarterfinals but suffered losses in close three-set matches, Bryzgalova falling to Brianna Shvets (6-7(3), 7-6(1), 3-6), and Rutlauka coming up short against the eventual runner-up, Victoria Hu (2-6, 6-4, 4-6).
“[Sabine] has hit every benchmark we have set up for her so far, and it’s no mistake that she was voted as the No. 5 freshman in the country," Kunovac said. "For me, Iuliia is definitely somebody who is a contender to win the NCAA [Championship]. That’s not a stretch; that’s just her level and who she is.”
Before the pandemic, Bryzgalova was ranked as high as No. 10 by the ITA Division I Women’s Singles Rankings; Kunovac says that all Iuliia needs is a chance to play a few matches and that she’ll quickly work her way up, since the cancellation of all sports by the Ivy League last year took her out of ranked status.
While the Red and Blue did not bring any hardware home this weekend, they showed flashes of brilliance that gave more reasons for optimism than concern. Next weekend, the women will compete in the Cissie Leary Invitational in attempt to get back on track.