No. 41 Cornell men’s tennis (18-7, 4-3 Ivy) headed down south to Durham, North Carolina last weekend for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. After a hard fought win against No. 23 Auburn (17-12, 5-7 SEC), who boast three nationally ranked singles players and a top-20 doubles team, the Red fell to No. 12 Duke (22-6, 11-1 ACC), ending an up-and-down season on a relative high.
Against Auburn, Cornell started out well in doubles. After a tough loss at first doubles, where the No. 17 team of Finn Murgett and Raul Dobai of Auburn outclassed sophomores Nathan Mao and Adit Sinha, Cornell struck back at the No. 2 spot. Freshman Petar Teodorovic and junior Samuel Paquette looked excellent, winning 6-1 and evening the score. This left it up to No. 3 doubles, where, without senior Vladislav Melnic for the match, Cornell debuted a relatively new team, sophomore Radu Papoe and freshman Aman Sharma.
The match was a battle, with both teams leading at points before the score became tied at 4-4. The Red picked up a clutch break, though, and rode out the match, winning 6-4. Throughout the contest, it was difficult to tell that Sharma and Papoe haven’t played together often. Sharma excelled at the net, rarely making errors and placing his volleys precisely, while Papoe’s shotmaking from the baseline got the duo out of tough situations.
Holding a 1-0 lead, the match turned to singles, where Cornell faced what was almost certainly their biggest challenge of the year. Auburn’s lineup showed its strength early, as Sharma, Sinha and Paquette fell in straight sets, putting Cornell one point away from exiting the tournament in the first round.
Mao immediately struck back at fourth singles, taking his match 7-5 6-3. Mao, who has been a consistent performer all season, stuck to his normal gameplan, hitting his groundstrokes deep and coming to the net often, sometimes even on his second serve. Mao’s opponent, Jan Galka, never looked comfortable dealing with his pressure.
Mao’s win left the match down to Papoe and Teodorovic, who both played long, difficult matches. Papoe, ranked No. 88 in singles, came out firing, leading the first set 5-2 before No. 51 Tyler Stice took the set to a tiebreak, which Papoe won. After a second set loss, Papoe once again proved his quality, winning the third set 6-4 and tying the match. Teodorovic would have to battle in the first but took the set 7-5, before No. 119 Murgett evened the score. Up 5-4 and with the potentially deciding game tied 40-all, Teodorovic served to Murgett’s body, taking his opponent by surprise and giving Cornell only their second ever NCAA tournament win.
Against Duke, the Big Red faced an even tougher task, and it wasn’t their day. At No. 12, Duke was the highest ranked opponent Cornell faced all season, and their lineup featured many highly ranked competitors, including the highly touted Garrett Johns, who is inside the top 25 in singles and doubles.
Doubles was a mixed bag for Cornell, as after a tough loss at No. 1, Teodorovic and Paquette struck back with a 6-4 win at second doubles. Despite Melnic being available, Cornell stuck with Sharma and Papoe at No.3, and after a hard fought set, the new duo fell 7-5, giving Duke the doubles point.
In singles it didn’t start out much better, as in his return to the lineup, Melnic had to retire due to injury in the second set, bringing Cornell down 2-0. It was a disappointing end to a great Cornell career for Melnic. Mao soon fell in straight sets, extending Duke’s lead, before Teodorovic capped off an excellent first tournament for the Red, battling back from a first set loss to secure his fourth tournament win in four chances.
After Paquette lost a tough three setter, however, Duke took the match and ended Cornell’s tournament run. This mathematical loss ended Sinha and Papoe’s matches early, despite both having just won second set tiebreakers. Papoe’s match was particularly impressive, as it came against the excellent Johns.
It was a tough end to what has been an inconsistent season for Cornell. However, given the great performances Cornell has gotten all year from its underclassmen, the future looks bright for the Red.