Story by Taylor Soule
Junior Alen Salibasic already had three Missouri Valley Conference Individuals titles, two in singles and one in doubles. He knew the stakes. He knew the competition. He knew his game plan. He knew the venue.
Still, the Nov. 8-10 MVC Individuals at the Roger Knapp Tennis Center felt different for the overall No. 1 seed.
The format was different. One draw considered every player in the MVC, unlike the old mode of dividing the Valley flight by flight.
The atmosphere was different. Salibasic had to play his teammate, Drake sophomore Ben Lott, in the semifinals. And he knew Lott was injured.
“Since I know what his weaknesses are, I tried to dig into them,” Salibasic said. “Also, I knew he was injured, but I was trying to reason it, ‘As long as he’s on the court, he’s fine.’ I didn’t go about showing mercy or anything. I played 100 percent like I would usually do.”
Salibasic won the opening set 7-5 before Lott retired due to injury.
The victory set up a title tilt against Jonny Rigby of Southern Illinois on Sunday.
The Drake junior relied on his signature strength, serving, to win a low-drama opening set 6-1.
“I got a lot of cheap points off my serve, points where I didn’t have to make many rallies,” Salibasic said. “The first set was very clean. I didn’t have much to worry about.”
Then, a few Salibasic errors gave Rigby a chance to take the momentum. The Saluki sophomore broke Salibasic’s serve back at 4-3. For Salibasic, the shift in control was a much-needed wake-up call.
“Things kept getting complicated,” Salibasic said. “I was being too defensive, so in the first set, I was more dominating play, whereas in the second, I was trying to wait for his mistakes instead of taking initiative, and that’s why I lost control of the match. That woke me up, and I was able to turn it around.”
Salibasic returned to the aggressive play of the opening set to take the match and the title, 7-5.
“It was definitely a confidence booster,” Salibasic said. “The matches that I had to play were all very solid, and since the draw considered all the players in the MVC, it’s an additional accomplishment for me.”
In other MVC Individuals action, the doubles team of Salibasic and junior Matt Frost fell 8-7 (3) in the title match to Ilija Cuic and Jocelyn Devilliers of Wichita State on Sunday.
For Drake, the dominant performance at the MVC Individuals — coupled with a record-setting trip to the Nov. 7-8 National Indoor Championships in New York — debunked any notions that 2013-14 would be a rebuilding year.
“Even though we lost four seniors from last year and even though it was the best season so far in Drake history, I think it still shows that it wasn’t just a one-time thing,” Salibasic said. “We are definitely looking to at least keep up with the accomplishments that we made last year and even improve this year. We’re setting our goals even higher than last year.”