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Ghorbel, McKie upset nation’s top doubles team

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Last Sunday proved to be one of the most memorable days in recent memory for the Drake men’s tennis program, as the Bulldogs tallied three wins over nationally ranked opponents, including a win over the No. 1 ranked doubles team in the nation.

Sunday’s action at the ITA Central Regional tournament on the campus of the University of Minnesota kicked off with junior Robin Goodman earning Drake’s first win over a ranked opponent of the day. Goodman faced off against Cliff Marsland of Tulsa, ranked No. 44 in the nation in singles.

“I knew he was a good player, but I knew that with the level I was playing at, I could beat him,” Goodman said. “Nobody in that tournament was unbeatable for me.”

As the match against the third seed began, it was clear that Goodman was far from outmatched against Tulsa’s highest-ranked player. Early in the match, Goodman observed his opponent’s tendencies and discovered what caused him to falter. The Drake junior soon took the offensive by altering his backhand and putting emphasis on his forehand.

“The reason I won that match was being better tactically, using my slice to open up the court and using my forehand to go to the open space,” Goodman said.

The tactic paid off well for the Bulldog, as he broke Marsland’s serve multiple times en route to a 6-4, 6-4 victory.

But before Goodman could take on No. 28 Guillermo Alcorta from Oklahoma in the semifinals, senior Anis Ghorbel went up against Costin Paval of Oklahoma in the quarterfinals. Not only is Paval the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year and an All-American in doubles, but he is currently ranked No. 6 in the nation in singles, the highest ranked opponent Ghorbel or any of his teammates have ever faced.

“In the Round of 16, I played a guy who was No. 39 in the nation last year, so I got a lot of confidence from that match going into the quarterfinals,” Ghorbel said. “I also saw the close match between Paval and Jean (Erasmus) and I saw a couple things I needed to do to be able to do something against him.”

After watching Erasmus battle Paval in two close sets just the day before, Ghorbel and head coach Davidson Kozlowski noticed that Paval struggled with high balls on his backhand side and could be broken down when forced to move back and forth across the court.

“I didn’t care about his ranking, I didn’t care about his results, I just cared about me going out there and playing my best tennis,” Ghorbel said.

Ghorbel played the role of the aggressor, and that mentality awarded him a 6-3 first set. Nerves began to creep in on Drake’s top player though, and Paval would level the match by taking the second set 6-3.

With an offensive mindset back in place for the third and deciding set, Ghorbel played some of his finest tennis of the tournament, as he put the nation’s sixth best player out of the tournament with a 6-2 third set.

“That was a great win for Anis,” Kozlowski said. “Anis can play with anyone in the country, and he has proven that.”

With a huge boost of confidence after his biggest collegiate win, Ghorbel was ready to take on Minnesota’s Leandro Toledo, ranked No. 50 in the nation, but Goodman’s semifinal match against Alcorta came first.

Goodman broke his opponent’s serve early in the match to take the initial lead, but things soon began to slip in favor of Alcorta.  Alcorta proved too much for Goodman on Sunday.

Alcorta used tactics that were very similar to those Goodman used against Marsland, as his slice and booming forehand caused Goodman to make more unforced errors than he is accustomed to. Goodman’s ITA Central Regional tournament ended in the semifinals with a 6-3, 6-0 loss, and Alcorta would go on to win the tournament and earn a spot in the ITA National Indoors Tournament in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.

As Goodman was in the latter stages of his second set, Ghorbel took the court against Toledo. The two players forced each other into a tiebreaker to decide the opening set and Toledo ended up taking the tiebreaker 7-5 to go up a set and grab the momentum. Ghorbel was able to keep the second set close, but Toledo went on to win 7-6, 6-4 and advance to the final, where he lost to Oklahoma’s Alcorta.

With less than an hour between the end of Ghorbel’s singles match and the doubles quarterfinals, it was a quick turnaround for him.

The lingering effects of the singles semifinals weighed on the tandem of Ghorbel and senior James McKie. As the two faced off against Wichita State’s Matheus Pereira and Alvaro Gutierrez, they couldn’t find a rhythm and soon were down 2-7, with the Wichita State duo serving for the match.

“I’ve never experienced something like this is my life,” Ghorbel said. “We were frustrated, we couldn’t move well and we weren’t feeling the ball well.”

After the first point of the game at 7-2, Ghorbel and McKie could tell that their opponents were extremely tight and nervous, and this invigorated the Drake duo. The two players began to swing more freely and communicate with each other better. Once they broke serve to move to 3-7, they never looked back.

The Drake duo rattled off seven straight games in complete domination, as they never faced a single match point.

The Drake duo took on the nation’s top doubles team in the semifinals. Oklahoma’s Dane Webb and Paval earned the No. 1 doubles ranking for this season due to their status as All-Americans in doubles last spring, where the duo reached the Final Four of the NCAA doubles draw.

“As the match was being played out, it looked like we were going to be very competitive and that we would play even with them,” Kozlowski said. “Anis and James were on their game and very mentally confident.”

The Oklahoma duo was the first to strike, as the No. 1 ranked team earned an early break to go up 2-0. But McKie and Ghorbel weren’t ready to give up, and the two Drake players won the next four games to go up 4-2. The duo would go on to win 8-5 after a back-and-forth match. On their very first opportunity, McKie and Ghorbel defeated the No. 1 doubles team in the nation, scoring the biggest upset in doubles throughout the ITA Regional tournaments.

After winning match point, the Drake duo wasn’t aware of how big their win actually was. All McKie knew about Paval and Webb was that they were the top seed in the tournament, and Ghorbel only knew that they were somewhere in the Top-10.

“I didn’t actually know they were number one in the nation until I was told after the match,” McKie said. “It was a much better win than I initially thought.”

McKie and Ghorbel weren’t done for the tournament though, as the duo had to come back Monday morning for the final against Oklahoma’s Axel Alvarez and Alcorta.

When the two Drake seniors took the court on Monday morning, Sunday’s magic of the quarterfinal comeback and semifinal upset just wasn’t there. McKie and Ghorbel ended up losing to the Oklahoma duo 8-4 in the final.

Throughout the fall season, this Drake squad’s message has been to “send a statement” to the other top teams. They want to show that the small private school in Des Moines can beat the top teams in the nation. With Sunday’s three big wins, the Bulldogs have done just that, and teams have started to take notice.

“The biggest compliment being paid to these guys is about their competitive nature,” Kozlowski said. “These guys compete so hard because they have known each other for years, they have high goals and they are pushing each other every day.”

Kozlowski was quick to point out that these are only fall events and not dual matches like in the spring season, so they have no bearing on the NCAA tournament. A deep run in the NCAA tournament is Drake’s end goal this season.

The Bulldogs have one more tournament on their fall schedule, as they head back to the University of Minnesota on Friday, Nov.  2 for the Gopher Invite.

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