In this week’s entry of the VT Sports blog we are talking about a university that is always contending for the tennis national title. Hopefully, in the near future, some of our athletes on scholarship are fighting to win it all.
Last Monday, senior Thai-Son Kwiatkowski (Virginia) culminated a phenomenal career with an NCAA singles title. He defeated William Blumberg (North Carolina) 6-4 7-6 in the final, thus avenging the recent losses against the star freshman in the ACC semifinals and the NCAA team final. In spite of these mishaps, the Cavaliers used their depth to capture their third straight national trophy.
It is important to highlight the fact neither of the finalists ended the year atop their team lineup. According to college tennis guru Bobby Knight, the latest precedent of a final not involving a No. 1 player goes back to 2009, when Devin Britton (Ole Miss) faced Steven Moneke (Ohio State).
College coaches do not necessarily have to follow the ITA rankings. Nevertheless, ITA’s I.F.3 rule states that “players must play in order of ability.”
On the Tar Heels end of the spectrum, we can conclude No. 16 Blumberg and No. 22 senior Ronnie Schneider are evenly matched. There is no substantial gap in playing prowess. In this situation, most coaches would do what coach Sam Paul did in respecting the hierarchy, pecking order or seniority, whatever you prefer to call it. After all, unless he decides to turn pro early, Blumberg has three more years of eligibility to lead the team.
Meanwhile, Brian Boland, the new head of men’s tennis within the USTA’s player development department, probably had a headache before submitting each lineup at Virginia. His 2016/17 roster was stacked top to bottom. Indeed, even Henrik Wiersholm and JC Aragone boast a Universal Tennis Rating of 15. The No. 5 and 6 of the Cavaliers are similarly rated as current world No. 35 Viktor Troicki. Let that sink in. No wonder they combined for 50 wins and a measly 5 losses at the bottom of the lineup this season.
The featured number four in the lineup was junior Collin Altamirano, who started the season as No. 19 in the ITA rankings. In the latest Futures he participated in, he crushed 2016 NCAA champion and Oracle award recipient Mackenzie McDonald 6-3 6-1 en route to the final. Nobody is surprised the Californian ended the dual season on a 13-match winning streak.
Swedish freshman Carl Soderlund manned the No. 3 spot. The star newcomer owns the highest ATP ranking within the squad, peaking at world No. 387 as recently as May 8. Less than a year ago he picked up an impressive win over former top 50 Daniel Gimeno Traver.
The aforementioned Kwiatkowski acted as the Cavs’ second spade down the stretch. The 22-year-old has been a perennial force both in singles and doubles over the last three years. A three time All American, he reached the No. 1 spot in the nation in his sophomore year. In the 2017 dual season, he posted impressive 24-5 and 26-2 singles and doubles records respectively, cementing his status as a legend in Charlottesville.
Yet, Boland selected fellow senior Alexandre Ritschard as lineup headliner. The Swiss, No. 91 on the ITA list, received the award for the most improved senior. Is that enough to warrant a No. 1 spot in Virginia’s star-studded lineup? Debatable. It’s worth noting Ritschard has been the only Cavalier to play in all six positions in 2017. The fact he only collected two wins in his final six outings as No. 1 is a red flag. However, the Zurich native demolished Schneider 6-1 6-3 in the NCAA championship.
The Swiss has a bigger game than Kwiatkowski. He is more inconsistent but if/once he manages to trim down his unforced errors, his style should probably be better suited for the professional level. When he is on, stopping him is a nearly impossible task. Boland bet on Ritschard’s potential and the risky gamble paid off when it mattered the most.
As a curiosity, if you follow this link you can find several instances in which college coaches issued formal complaints regarding lineup irregularities. In some cases, like this one, the committee confirmed the infraction and thus modified the score of the tie.
Text by Pablo Mosquera