STARKVILLE, Miss. - Faced with first-day elimination at the SEC Tennis Championship, the Tennessee Volunteers stuck to the singles game plan to beat Alabama in a four-hour match Thursday.
After losing the doubles point in a deciding tiebreaker, the Vols regrouped for singles and rallied past Alabama 4-1 to advance to the quarterfinals at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Center.
Hunter Reese, Brandon Fickey and Jarryd Chaplin all won their matches in straight sets before freshman Mikelis Libietis clinched the four-hour Tennessee victory by beating Ricky Doverspike 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3) on court 1.
“We competed on every court,” Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. “I think we can say this was the first time all year we had every court competing. I would say that shows a little bit of character. The kind of character we know they have. We’ve been looking for them to mature.”
No. 16 Tennessee (14-12) faces host and ninth-ranked Mississippi State on Friday at 11 a.m. Central. The Bulldogs won 4-3 in the regular season.
The doubles point ended for the Vols in potentially heartbreaking fashion that featured a mad dash of a rally on court 1 that ended just short.
Libietis and Reese, ranked 10th nationally, got off on the wrong foot at the top of the lineup. Doverspike and Jarryd Botha broke Libietis’ serve to open the match and before long, Tennessee’s freshman pair trailed 6-1.
“Sometimes when you play a bad first game, it feeds on itself and they played a bad first service game,” Winterbotham said. “Alabama played a great first return game, really went after their shots and put our guys on their heels.”
Then the comeback began.
The wheels started turning for Libietis and Reese as the other matches were winding down. Peter Nagovanak and Bryan Swartz lost 8-4 on court 3, but Chaplin and Edward Jones came from a break down late to beat Vikram Reddy and Carlos Taborga 9-8 (5).
The point came down to court 1 as Libietis and Reese rallied from three breaks down to go ahead 8-7. The match eventually went into a tiebreaker where Libietis double faulted at 3-4 and Alabama held on from there to win the match 9-8 (4).
In the regular-season meeting between the schools two weeks ago, Alabama won the doubles point en route to a 6-1 victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“That doubles point could have broken many a team,” Winterbotham said. “You’re down, you come all the way back and then you get it snatched away from you at the end when you’ve made a tremendous recovery. A lot of teams, a lot of individuals, would see that and see the writing on the wall and say it’s not our day.”
“All we as a coaching staff said is, ‘OK let’s go to singles.’ We started talking to guys about their strategies and they handled it. They moved forward and forgot it, which was great.”
In singles, Tennessee won four of six first sets and the pieces eventually started falling into place. In a five-minute span, the Vols went from trailing to taking a 3-1 lead.
Fickey defeated Jarryd Botha 6-4, 6-2 on court 3, and Reese followed with a 6-1, 6-4 win against Daniil Proskura on court 2. Chaplin, who lost to Reddy two weeks ago in a pair of tiebreakers, avenged the loss by winning 6-4, 6-1 on court 4.
At the top of the lineup, Libietis had one match point slip away when receiving at 5-4 in the second set against Doverspike, but the Vols’ leading freshman made quick work in the second-set tiebreaker. Doverspike double faulted on match point No. 3 to give Libietis and the Vols the team victory.
Jones and Taylor Patrick were still on courts 5 and 6 respectively when the match was clinched.
Tennessee 4, Alabama 1
1.#32 Mikelis Libietis, UT, def. #104 Ricky Doverspike, ALA, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3)
2. #80 Hunter Reese, UT, def. #99 Daniil Proskura, ALA, 6-1, 6-4
3. Brandon Fickey, UT, def. Jarryd Botha, ALA, 6-4, 6-2
4. Jarryd Chaplin, UT, def. Vikram Reddy, ALA, 6-4, 6-1
5. Edward Jones, UT, vs. David Vieyra, ALA, 5-7, 6-3 DNF
6. Taylor Patrick, UT, vs. Michael Thompson, 5-7, 5-3 DNF
1. #40 Doverspike/Botha, ALA, def. #10 Libietis/Reese, UT, 9-8 (4)
2. Chaplin/Jones, UT, def. Reddy/Taborga, ALA, 9-8 (5)
3. Vieyra/Thompson, ALA, def. Nagovnak/Swartz, UT, 8-4
Order of Finish: Doubles (3,2,1); Singles (3,2,4,1).