By Cody Soto
The atmosphere was perfect at the Hurd Tennis Center Friday night for the highly anticipated battle between No. 2 Baylor men’s tennis and top-ranked Oklahoma. Although the Bears saw big comebacks from several players in singles play, the Bears couldn’t rally late and fell 4-3 to the Sooners.
Baylor (17-4, 1-1 Big 12) had the perfect opportunity to knock off the top-ranked Sooners in several instances, but the momentum didn’t swing their way in singles play. The Bears had already lost twice to the Sooners earlier in the season, and the third time was the closest yet.
“Our guys fought their tails off, and it just didn’t go our way,” head coach Matt Knoll said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do. Everybody was just fighting as hard as they could fight, and you couldn’t ask any more as a coach.”
The Bears brought the heat in doubles play with a different lineup; the No. 48 duo of senior Diego Galeano and junior Julian Lenz moved to the top spot while sophomore Vince Schneider and junior Felipe Rios took the helm on court two. Senior Mate Zsiga teamed up with sophomore Max Tchoutakian at the No. 3 spot.
There wasn’t enough fire power for the Schneider and Rios duo. They were the first to falter as Oklahoma took a 6-4 win at the No. 2 spot. The Tchoutakian and Zsiga duo, playing together for the first time since Jan. 24, evened up doubles play as they powered past Oklahoma 6-3 on court three.
All attention quickly turned to court one as Galeano and Lenz fought off a late Sooner rally. An ace by Lenz gave Baylor the 6-5 lead, but a tiebreaker was needed to decide the doubles point. The Sooners’ hit was too long, and Baylor took the 7-6 (7-4) win on court one to take the crucial 1-0 lead over Oklahoma (21-1, 2-0 Big 12).
“It was a hell of an effort, a hell of a match,” Zsiga said. “From our point, we came out with a lot of fire in doubles play. We had to change up a little bit, and we came out with incredible power.”
The Bears looked to carry that momentum into singles play minutes later, but the team saw a slump as two seniors went down early. Senior Tony Lupieri faltered at the No. 2 spot and couldn’t hold a lead in the second set. Errors stacked up against the Zagreb, Croatia native and forced him to drop a 6-2, 7-5 loss to No. 7 Andrew Harris.
Oklahoma took its first lead of the night when Galeano dropped his match 6-3, 6-3 on court four. Galeano couldn’t get a rally together to take a lead in the match; a couple of bad breaks forced him to play catch up the majority of the evening.
“We just have to get better,” Knoll said. “We’ve got to find a way to get a little more competitive on certain courts. We got knocked out pretty early [on courts two and four].”
Tchoutakian’s match on court three looked to swing in favor of Baylor in the opening set, but the momentum swung the other way in set two. A competitive third set set up two match points for Tchoutakian, but two very close calls on whether an Oklahoma hit was in or out kept the game rolling.
Those two calls could have single handedly changed the outcome of the match for Baylor, but Tchoutakian dropped a close tiebreaker and lost 6-2, 2-6, 6-7 (4-7) to give Oklahoma a huge 3-1 lead with three matches remaining.
“It was huge not to get that point on the board,” Knoll said. “[A point] creates a lot of momentum, which would have made the difference for us. What we saw today that we’re not assertive enough in key situations, and we’re not holding serve as a result.”
Rios was the next to finish. The junior from Vina Del Mar, Chile had a tough matchup at the bottom of the lineup, but he pushed through the long rally to win 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 on court six. At that moment, Zsiga and Lenz caught huge breaks on courts five and one. At that moment, things looked hopeful against for Baylor.
The matchup between No. 1 Lenz and No. 2 Axel Alvarez Llamas came down to the wire. While Lenz took a confident lead with a first set win, the second and third sets made him dig deep. Llamas took control quickly after that, and he pushed Lenz from sideline to sideline on each point.
While Zsiga rallied to force a third set tiebreaker, Lenz’s forehand into the net gave Oklahoma the tough 4-3 win as he fell 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 4-6 to No. 2 Alvarez Llamas. Zsiga claimed the win on court five 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-5), but it was too late for the Bears.
“We’ve got to accept it, and we’ve got to fix things,” Zsiga said. “There’s no excuses. We lost, and we’re going to learn from it.”
Despite the loss, Knoll described the crowd as special. Over 1,400 fans were in attendance for the top two matchup. It ultimately helped them gain energy early in the match, Zsiga said.
“The fans were amazing; I’ve never seen that many people here in my life before,” he said. “I wouldn’t have won without the crowd. I’ve been playing here for four years, and that was off the charts. It helped us get the doubles point.”
Baylor gets back into action quickly as its hosts No. 25 Oklahoma State at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Hurd Tennis Center. The Bears will honor their four seniors during the matchup.