Thursday, May 19, 2016

Midwest Represents in Stanford/Northwestern tussle

The first point was between two brothers from Indiana. The last was between two rivals from Chicagoland. In between was some high drama, terrific tennis, and even some trash talking. In the end, the visiting Cardinal of Stanford defeated the host Wildcats of Northwestern 4-3 to reach the Round of 16 of the NCAA men's tennis championships in Tulsa.

This was Stanford's first 4-3 win of the year. It couldn't have come at a better time.

It was a chilly but mostly sunny day in Evanston, with two elite universities (the only two private colleges in their conferences) that often appeal to similar caliber student athletes facing off. The crowd was good sized and plenty engaged, with just enough Stanford alumni and Tom Fawcett friends and family to spice things up.

Things started well for the Wildcats in doubles. Unlike most college matches, the big focus for many fans was at the #3 doubles spot, where Northwestern senior Mihir Kumar was, for the first time in his life, playing a competitive match against his brother, freshman Sameer Kumar. The Kumars, from a couple of hours away in Carmel, Indiana, were joined by their parents in what was an incredibly proud day for them.

In the match, neither brother played their absolute best, with Mihir getting broken at 2-2 and then Sameer getting broken in the next game. The big point came with Sameer's partner, Yale Goldberg, serving at 3-4 and deciding point. Some excellent net play from Stanford secured them the hold, and poor net play from Northwestern in the next game let Sameer serve for the match. He held at 15 and thus put an end to his brother's stellar college career.

Afterward, Sameer Kumar said of that moment, "It was a little bittersweet. He's done so much for me over my whole tennis career and even outside of tennis, he's helped me so much. I've been watching him since I was 7 or 8 and I came to a ton of Northwestern matches in the past few years. I know he's a little disappointed right now but he's meant the world to me, and I'm very proud of him for his great college career. He's going to do really well in the real world."

Mihir was visually upset after the Cats' loss, but he pulled himself together enough to pose for a family photo. He can also console himself with his post-graduate scholarship, for which he deserves a hearty congratulations!

Northwestern won the other two doubles matches, and thus the doubles point, with Sam Shropshire and Konrad Zieba playing some masterful tennis for a 6-2 at #2 and Strong Kirchheimer and Fedor Baev breaking Maciek Romanowicz for a 6-4 win at #1. Getting the break there was crucial, since Kirchheimer had failed to serve out the match in the previous game despite a 30-0 lead and a match point/deciding point. It also seemed to be a good sign for Northwestern, as they won nearly every dual this year in which they took the doubles point.

Needing only to split singles, Northwestern got off to a bit of a slow start, with Stanford racing out to big leads at 1, 4, and 5 singles. Sameer Kumar at #5 was particularly solid against fellow freshman Ben Vandixhorn, going up 6-1 4-2* and controlling the action with his powerful groundstrokes and generally handing whatever tricky lefty stuff the Libertyville native was throwing at him. Vandixhorn, who has been a clinching machine this season for the Wildcats, managed to make things interesting toward the end, leveling the match at 4-4. After Kumar broke and served for the match, Vandixhorn immediately broke back for 5-5. But the relentless Kumar broke yet again and served out the match without incident to bring Stanford level at 1-1 and turn Kumar into a cheerleader.

"My voice is shot," he said afterward. "Yesterday I was really cheering on my teammate, Nolan [Paige] and he came up really clutch, and today it was incredible by Tom and Konrad" in the final match.

Oh, sorry, #spoileralert.

Within seconds of Kumar's win, Paige closed out a 6-3 6-2 win over fellow senior Fedor Baev at #4 to put Stanford up 2-1. However, things had gotten complicated at #1 singles. Fawcett, who's merciless play got him three set points at 5-1* 40-15, started missing a bit, and Zieba held for 2-5. Zieba broke for 3-5 and then held from 0-30, winning a second deciding point/set point. Fawcett then reached two more set points thanks to a net cord dribbler at 30-30, but the net cord tooketh away on the next point, setting up a third deciding point/set point of the set ... again won by Zieba. In the next game, Fawcett missed an overhead and a volley to go down 5*-6, and then stunningly was broken again, and Zieba had the first set, saving seven set points in all.

Next up, NCAA singles-bound Kirchheimer and Shropshire ended their exceptional dual seasons with straight set wins at #3 and #2 singles respectively. Strong has been outstanding for NU, losing just one match in the entire spring season, a three-setter to Illinois' Aron Hiltzik, while Shropshire went undefeated in regular season conference play. I only saw the last two games of Sam's contest, when he broke Michael Genender and then served out the match, out-poising the talented freshman just enough to seal the victory.

"The guy's an absolute stud," said Northwestern head coach Arvid Swan of Shropshire. "He's been an elite player since he arrived on campus, and keeps improving his game. So mentally tough, incredibly mature, we expect him to win and he wins."

Okay, so Northwestern up 3-2, but behind in the final two matches, at the top and bottom of the lineup. Each match had plenty of drama and jawing from players, coaches, and fans, demonstrating the stakes of the moment for both programs.

Over on 6, Stanford senior captain Maciek Romanowicz was up a set and was midway through the second against Alp Horoz. ("Alp plays long matches because he plays long points." - Swan.) It had become a testy affair. At one point, Romanowicz chose not to return a Horoz serve because he claimed someone -- I assume a coach -- was talking. The umpire gave Northwestern the point and Horoz went on to hold for a 4*-2 lead. But it would be the last game he won. An inspired Romanowicz held, broke, and held for 5-4* at which point Horoz tossed his racquet against the fence, causing Stanford to complain when the chair umpire didn't penalize him. In the next game, Romanowicz stepped up his game even more, hitting an overhead winner, a volley winner, and a forehand winner to set up three match points. He converted on his first, and held up a finger to his lips, shushing the Northwestern crowd.

So as if fate were guiding this entire affair, the match rested with the two best players in the regional: Stanford #1 Tom Fawcett, of nearby Winnetka, and Northwestern #1 Konrad Zieba, of also nearby Glenview. The two towns are a 15 minute drive from each other, and both are 15 minute drives from Evanston. Both guys played on their public school teams for a while -- Fawcett at New Trier (where he joined former Cardinal Robert Stineman in winning a state championship his sophomore year) and Zieba at Glenbrook South. They played "a bunch" growing up, according to Fawcett, and trained together last summer. Now both are ranked in the Top 20 in the country.

The Midwest was definitely representing.

By the time focus shifted to their court, things felt a bit anticlimactic. After Zieba's crazy first set comeback, Fawcett refocused himself, serving up a bagel in the second set. Fawcett then for the third set in a row raced out to a big lead: 4*-1 in this case, on a sweet forehand crosscourt pass. Two breaks up. Finish line in sight.

But then the gathering crowd, or perhaps it was the desperation of the situation, helped lift Zieba. He quickly got to 0-40 on Fawcett's serve, and at 30-40 played an outstanding defensive point to break. Then, serving at 2*-4, Zieba went down 0-40, got it to 30-40 ... and then MORE DRAMA! Zieba hit a second serve long, which should have given Fawcett the break and the opportunity to serve for the match. Fawcett stuck his finger up, but Zieba and the Northwestern coaches argued that he had made the verbal call too late (after he'd missed the return). The chair umpire agreed, telling Fawcett, "I told you before," and taking the game to deciding point. Fawcett argued but smartly didn't let it consume him. Zieba then held and was down just 3-4*.

"It's hard because you get a lot of annoying calls throughout the year in college tennis, it's just part of it," said Fawcett of that moment. "So I argued for maybe 10 seconds and then there's not much you can do after that, you just have to kind of clear your head and think about the next point, so that's what I did. I'm kind of used to that situation."

Fawcett, who admitted afterward he started thinking about the first set after his third set lead slipped, said, "You kind of just trust your training and go after your shots, and that's what I did." Stanford head coach Paul Goldstein said he told Fawcett, "Mentally strong people don't dwell on the past."

Fawcett held at 15 for 5-3, and from 0-15 in the next game hit three fantastic returns to reach 15-40 -- three match points. But Zieba saved all three. So it was time for Fawcett to serve for the match. The crowd tried to rally behind their man, and Zieba got to 0-30. Fawcett looked like he was rushing. But a forehand-down-the-line winner and then an ill-advised Zieba dropshot got the score to 30-30. A Fawcett volley winner set up a fourth match point, and this one he converted with more aggression, finishing off the match with an overhead smash and his team rushing him and a bitterly disappointed home team and crowd.

"It's amazing," said Fawcett of his clinch. "I had a lot of friends from home and family watching so it was a really cool experience, and just happy I could come through for the team." He added, "We're a young team, so the younger guys have to take more of a leadership role. I just tried to do that a little bit today."

"We had two leaders of our team still on the court," said Goldstein of the team's comeback win. "Romanowicz at 6 is our senior captain. He probably didn't play his best tennis at the very beginning, but if there's a guy you want out there, it's those two guys. They've been leaders for our team all year."

Swan, who recruited both Sameer Kumar and Tom Fawcett, said of Stanford, "They're an outstanding team, outstanding program, and I think they'll do well in the Round of 16."  Of his own team, Swan said, he was "really proud." He added, "We're good. We're one of the best teams in the country. Didn't make the final site this year, but if you look at our record, the teams we've beat, we've got a good team. I feel real excited about what the future holds for our program."

For lots of photos from last weekend's action, visit the On the Rise Facebook album at
Next up for Stanford is their conference rivals, #2-ranked UCLA. "We're 0-3 against them in the season, so not a lot of pressure on us," said Fawcett. "We can just go out and have fun. I really believe in this team, I think we're going to do something special in Tulsa. " Both Fawcett and Goldstein noted that there was historical precedent for a Stanford team going 0-3 against the Bruins but then getting them back in the NCAAs -- the 1996 national championship team, which beat UCLA 4-1 in the finals.

One of the players on that 1996 team?

Paul Goldstein.

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