By Cody Soto
And then there were four.
For the first time since 2007, the second-ranked Baylor men’s tennis team will advance to the NCAA semifinals after the Bears posted a 4-2 win over defending national champion USC on Saturday afternoon at the Hurd Tennis Center.
“It’s incredibly hard to do. We have had some incredibly talented teams that haven’t been able to (advance to the semifinals),” head coach Matt Knoll said. “It’s special and it’s even more special to be able to do it here in front of your home crowd when you are playing your best tennis.”
The Bears (25-5) came out with a dominant energy to start out doubles play, and the effect trickled into singles action quickly after that. This Final Four appearance is the first for every player on the roster, and the moment is special with the tournament in Waco, senior Mate Zsiga said.
“I never felt that we were down,” he said. “It was an amazing environment. The crowd was into it, and we picked that up. We played with energy, and we had a chance to win.”
Zsiga and senior Tony Lupieri were the first off the court when they upset No. 74 Max de Vroome and Eric Johnson 8-5 for the early Baylor advantage. The 79th-ranked senior duo played one of its best matches of the season as they forced many USC errors at the net.
“We’ve struggled at the middle and end of the season, but Tony picked it up in the last few weeks,” Zsiga said. “He made big serves, big returns. It made it easier for me. Everybody came up so tough and had a lot of energy.”
USC tied it up on court three, 6-6, while senior Diego Galeano and junior Julian Lenz served it out for the match. The eighth-ranked pair used a strong cross-court shot to win 8-4 at the top of the lineup over No. 3 Yannick Hanfmann and Roberto Quiroz, giving Baylor a crucial 1-0 lead over the Trojans.
Baylor won four of six opening sets across the board, but a few changes on courts four and six kept the match tight on the far side of the Hurd Tennis Center.
Sophomore Max Tchoutakian fell behind early and was unable to fuel a run late in the second set. The mistakes added up, and USC’s Johnson tied up the match at one point apiece with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Tchoutakian.
Zsiga played a balanced game over on court five, both in long rallies and at the service line. The Szeged, Hungary native held every time he served and gave Baylor the 2-1 lead with a 6-3, 6-3 win over de Vroome.
USC would not go away though. Robert Quiroz carded a 6-3, 6-3 win over Lupieri at the No. 2 spot and tied up the match for the second time of the day, 2-2. Momentum looked to swing in the Trojans’ direction after Lenz dropped his second set and USC took late leads on courts four and six. The Bears were aware of the possibility of going to third sets on the far courts, but it was time to step it up for Galeano and Rios.
“If they win those second sets, then the third was for whoever,” Galeano said. “We played good in important moments. That’s what it’s all about. We need to play well in those moments, and everything will be alright.”
Galeano and Rios both forced a second set tiebreaker to end their matches. After trailing in the second set, both South American players forced USC to play from behind the entire tiebreaker.
Rios was the first to triumph as he held off a late run from Nick Crystal to win 7-5, 7-6 (5) on court six, pushing Baylor out to a 3-2 lead with two matches on.
“I just wanted to keep playing my tennis,” Rios said. “It was a tough game, but I got the break and went to a tiebreaker. It’s good to be a break up, and after that the wind was against me so I had to be fast on my feet and it worked out.”
While Lenz’s match was tied 1-1 in the third set, Galeano did not play around. The Asuncion, Paraguay native played a perfect tiebreaker and gave Baylor the match-clinching point with a 6-3, 7-6 (0) win over Jonny Wang. Baylor ended USC’s chance at its 22nd NCAA team title in hopes of winning two more matches and earning its second national championship.
With the win, Baylor becomes the third Big 12 team in the NCAA semifinals. The other two teams are No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 6 TCU who play each other for a spot in the NCAA championship match. It is the first time three conference teams have made it to the Final Four since 1999.
“I’m proud to be a part of this league,” Knoll said. “I think there is a great feeling down here for tennis and a lot of these teams have great fan bases and they are turning out and they are making it a great event.”
The Bears face three-seed Virginia in the NCAA semifinals. Baylor won both regular season meetings between the two teams, and the team looks for another victory over the Cavaliers with a trip to the national championship on the line.
The NCAA semifinals match will begin at 1 p.m. on Monday at the Hurd Tennis Center. Assuming Baylor advances, the Bears will meet Oklahoma or TCU in the title match on Tuesday.