Photo: Taylor Bender
For the second-straight year, the No. 48 Drake men’s tennis team captured the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Championship crown and earned an automatic bid into the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs defeated the Wichita State Shockers 4-1 in Omaha, Neb., on Sunday to book their ticket to the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs, who beat the Shockers just one week earlier to capture the regular-season title, were coming off a 4-0 win over the Illinois State Redbirds on Saturday and entered Sunday’s championship match as the favorite to win.
But the Shockers were eager to post an upset, and it showed at the beginning of the match. The Shocker duo of Tomislav Gregurovic and Guilermo Nicol posted an 8-5 victory over the Drake duo of junior Jean Erasmus and sophomore Robin Goodman at the second doubles position to open the match. Wichita State had taken the doubles point from Drake in the teams’ last meeting, but Drake’s third doubles team, comprised of freshman Alen Salibasic and senior Cesar Bracho, weren’t ready to see that happen again on Sunday.
Salibasic and Bracho evened the doubles tally at 1-1 with an 8-4 victory over Juan Estenssoro and Erick Reyes of the Shockers. The pressure then shifted to Drake’s top doubles team of juniors Anis Ghorbel and James McKie.
Drake’s pairing was in a fierce matchup against Matheus Pereira and David Cavalcanti, and neither team could break serve until 4-4 in the match.
“We played an amazing game at 4-all, and from then on, we made absolutely sure to hold serve to win,” Ghorbel said.
With a 7-6 lead and Ghorbel serving, the duo rushed out to a 40-0 advantage. After missing his first serve, Ghorbel chose to be bold on his second.
“I knew the guy always turns around to his inside-out forehand, and we were up 40-0, so I decided to hit it hard down the T,” Ghorbel said.
His ace granted the duo an 8-6 victory and a 1-0 lead in the match going into singles play.
“Winning the doubles point definitely gave us a big boost going into singles,” Drake head coach Evan Austin said. “We learned a lot from losing the doubles point last week, and we came out with a much better sense of urgency.”
The Bulldogs wasted no time in extending their lead as Salibasic quickly defeated Wichita State’s Reyes 6-1, 6-2 to move the tally to 2-0.
After sitting out last weekend with a lower back injury, Goodman returned on Sunday at the fourth singles position. The Bulldog sophomore didn’t let his setback in doubles affect him in singles play, though, as he posted a routine win over Nicol, 6-2, 6-4.
“Robin had beaten Nicol before, so I felt good about that matchup,” Austin said. “Robin has always been a big-match guy, and he ended up getting us a huge win.”
The Shockers refused to give up though, as Cavalcanti bested McKie 6-2, 6-4 to move the tally to 3-1. Drake’s fate now seemed to rest on the shoulders of senior Jonathan Hadash at the third singles position. The decision to put Hadash at the third spot was a difficult one for Austin, as Gregurovic had beaten Hadash in straight sets just a week prior.
“Third singles was a tough decision for me because Jean had beaten Gregurovic in the fall, and Jonathan didn’t play a great match the week before,” he said. “I just felt that Jonathan had a really good week of practice, and it was clear that he really wanted another shot against this guy, and I liked the matchup of our senior against their freshman.”
As McKie’s match finished, Hadash had already captured the first set 6-4 and was closing in on winning the second. Up 5-4 in the second set, Hadash held two match points to seal the win for the Bulldogs, but Wichita State’s Gregurovic mustered up some excellent tennis to stay in the match.
“I stayed aggressive instead of just waiting for him to make a mistake, but he just played an amazing couple points,” Hadash said. “Looking back, I don’t even think I would have done anything differently.”
Hadash and Gregurovic pushed each other to a tiebreaker to decide the second set. Hadash briefly got attention from the athletic trainer and took the court, looking to send Drake into the NCAA tournament for the second-straight year.
“I had no doubt in my mind that I could beat him; it just came down to execution,” Hadash said.
And execute he did. Hadash rallied to take the tiebreaker 7-3, and his 6-4, 7-6 victory clinched Drake’s fourth trip to the NCAA tournament in the last six seasons. At the time, Hadash didn’t know that he was the one to clinch the match for the Bulldogs.
“After I won and I looked over at coach, and then I looked to the other side to see all the guys running towards me, and that’s when I finally realized we won,” Hadash said. “I fell to the ground knowing the guys were going to pile on top of me, and now I have a big bruise on my hip as a bit of a memento.”
The Bulldogs won’t have time to rest on their laurels, though, as after a few days of rest and recuperation, they will be hitting the courts in preparation for their match against No. 15 Auburn in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Drake will take on the Tigers at the University of Illinois’ Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana, Ill.
“We have to go in there expecting to win the first round,” Goodman said. “We can’t get too excited for winning conference because losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament is not something we should accept and be happy with.”
Auburn is 17-9 on the season and will be the stiffest competition the Bulldogs have faced this season. Each of the Tigers’ nine losses came at the hands of teams ranked in the top 20 in the nation. Auburn hasn’t lost to a team outside the top 30 since falling to No. 34 LSU last season.
Despite having the odds stacked against them, the Bulldogs aren’t backing down.
“The better the opponent, the better we play as well,” Ghorbel said. “I believe that if we play our best tennis, we can beat anyone.”
“This time will be different than last year,” he added.