By AnnaGrace Hale | Sports Writer
After a hard-fought match, a celebratory dogpile was seen at the baseline of court four. To Baylor fans’ dismay, instead of athletes dressed in green and gold cheering, there was a mass of orange and white.
No. 3 Baylor men’s tennis (29-4, 4-1 Big 12) fell short in a nail-biting 4-3 loss to No. 6 University of Tennessee (26-7, 8-4 SEC) in the Elite Eight, ending the Bears’ journey in the NCAA tournament Thursday evening at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
“That’s one of the best college tennis matches that we will experience,” head coach Michael Woodson said. “It had absolutely everything. We had chances; they had chances — deep into the third set on so many courts. We won some of them; we lost some of them. And unfortunately, this one didn’t fall our way.”
Much like in February, the doubles point proved to be a battle, foreshadowing the rest of the match. Baylor’s determination was evident as it sought redemption after dropping the point to Stanford the previous week. The No. 3 duo of junior Finn Bass and senior Sven Lah went full steam ahead, claiming the first five games of their match. The tandem attained a 6-1 victory, but the Volunteers responded in similar fashion, snatching a 6-1 win over the No. 9 pair of junior Juan Pablo Grassi Mazzuchi and senior Matias Soto.
All eyes were on court three, with a close duel between the Bears’ pair of sophomore Tadeas Paroulek and junior Adrian Boitan and the Vols’ duo of Johannus Monday and Mark Wallner. The green and gold fell short 4-6, giving Tennessee the 1-0 lead with the doubles point.
Although not the result the Big 12 tournament champs were hoping for, Lah took a personal triumph in the doubles realm. This victory was his 113th doubles win, putting him ahead of Constantin Frantzen’s previous school record.
Now needing four wins in singles, Baylor started strong on courts five and six. After clinching the fourth point for the Bears against the Cardinal on Friday, Grassi claimed Baylor’s first point 6-1, 6-2. On court five, Paroulek followed suit, snatching another point 6-2, 6-4 as the Vols’ Angel Diaz hit the net. The two quick wins gave the Bears a glimpse of hope, hoisting a 2-1 advantage.
Tennessee answered right back as Lah fell to Emile Hudd 6-7(3), 3-6.
Tied at two apiece, the remaining three matches were close, all going into the third set. On court two, Soto dropped the first set 4-6, but this seemed to ignite a spark. He decisively won the next two sets 6-4, 6-3, grabbing another point for the Bears.
“My heart breaks that we’re not going to get out there as a team with Matias and Sven anymore,” Woodson said. “I’m just excited to have had the opportunity and thankful for the opportunity to have worked with them for so long.”
The green and gold then looked for one more win on either court one or court four. Boitan fought until the bitter end but fell short in the third set, as UT took the match 3-6, 6-1, 7-5.
Knotted at three-all, fate was decided on court four with Bass. He fought hard to recover after falling behind in set three but ultimately could not finish the job. After Bass hit the ball wide, UT’s Shunsuke Mitsui fell to his knees, taking the win 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4.
The Volunteers stormed the court and claimed the victory 4-3, advancing them to the Final Four and leaving Baylor stunned and without a future in the tournament.
“The thing that I’m the most proud of is the way that our guys competed and the way they battled together,” Woodson said. “They just represent the university and the program so well. Our fans, our coaches, our staff just do an incredible job of representing Baylor and showing what we really are about and who we are as people. And that’s so much more important to me than the result.”
Woodson now looks ahead to the future and said he knows the future is bright after yet another successful season.
“I know this one stings, and it’s probably going to motivate all of us to work a little harder moving forward, but the season is defined by so much success — another Big 12 championship, another semifinal run at Indoors, quarterfinals here, 29 wins,” Woodson said. “We’re the best of the best. It just didn’t fall our way today. But that’s tennis, that’s life. I’m just more happy about the way we handled it and how we consistently went through the season. This is a first-class group of guys, and I’m just proud to be a part of it.”