Men’s tennis gives No. 2 Illinois battle in loss

Jabari Ritchie

Minnesota’s match with Illinois’s second-ranked men’s tennis team had technically been over for quite some time when Gophers junior Manuel Lievano and Mike Kosta found themselves battling for a third-set tiebreaker at No. 4 singles.

Illinois, which clinched Saturday’s match an hour earlier with Nathan Zeder’s 7-6, 6-4 win over Avery Ticer at No. 6 singles, had lost two straight singles matches in three sets before the final match and neither side wanted to lose the now-meaningless point.

When Lievano won the tiebreaker to give the No. 23 Gophers (12-6, 5-3 Big Ten) a respectable 4-3 loss to the Illini, the small crowd left at the Northwest Athletic Club cheered as Kosta threw his racket to the court in frustration. Illinois (8-0, 18-4) won its closest conference match of the year but has yet to lose a Big Ten match this season.

“We played all right,” said Minnesota coach David Geatz. “I think Illinois has got the best team I’ve ever seen in the Big Ten. In fact, I think they’re the best team in the country indoors.”

Before Lievano, Harsh Mankad and Aleksey Zharionov’s third-set victories made the match close, and the Illini won the doubles point and singles matches over Chris Wettengel, Thomas Haug and Ticer to earn their sixth-consecutive win.

“We’ll be fine; this is positive,” said the third-ranked Mankad. “Illinois is No. 2 in the nation. Playing 4-3 with them shows that we can hang with them. We need to improve a few things and then I think we’ll be OK.”

Combined with Friday’s 7-0 win over Northwestern, Minnesota finished its second straight weekend with a split. Now in third place, the Gophers are mathematically out of contention for a regular season title.

With two matches remaining before the conference tournament, Minnesota is fighting for the third seed.

“We have no regrets,” said Zharinov, who competed away from the main courts on the set of courts with Wettengel and Lievano. “I didn’t see the guys in front, but I heard there was a fight on every court and there’s nothing more we can ask.”

The doubles loss turned out to be the determining factor in the match. After Illinois dominated No. 2 doubles with an 8-2 win over Lievano and Reven Stephens and Ticer and Zharinov took No. 3 doubles with an 8-5 victory, the Illini won the point with an 8-5 win over Mankad and Haug at No. 1 doubles.

“The reason we lost was that we lost the doubles point,” said Haug, who has a 26-8 singles record. “If we had won the doubles point, we’d be three-all with one guy left on the court. We’d have a 50-50 chance.”

Despite his team’s strong
finish, Geatz said he was not pleased with the narrow loss. A victory over Illinois could have moved Minnesota into the top 10 nationally for the first time this season.

“We didn’t come out to make a good showing,” he said. “We didn’t come to fight hard. We came to win. Yeah, our guys fought hard and everything, but I was still disappointed that we lost.”

Women lose two matches

Minnesota’s women’s tennis team left Illinois with two losses over the weekend.

The Gophers (6-14, 1-8 Big Ten) fell 6-1 to No. 67 Illinois (9-10, 4-3 Big Ten) on Saturday and were beaten 6-1 by No. 18 Northwestern (16-5, 8-0 Big Ten) on Sunday.

The Gophers No. 1 doubles combination of Valerie Vladea and Michaela Havelkova were 2-0 over the weekend and freshman Kelly Perry and Vladea each had one singles win.

Jabari Ritchie covers tennis and
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