From Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak to Rafael Nadal’s 39-match French Open winning streak, all records eventually come to an end. The Johns Hopkins tennis team learned that painful lesson this past Saturday against the Garnet.
Entering the match, #21 Johns Hopkins (5-1, 1-0 CC) had not lost a conference match in ten years. They had amassed an 84-game conference winning streak while winning ten conference titles. Last year, they swept the Garnet on two separate occasions – once in the regular season and the other in the Conference finals. However, that team featured a senior heavy lineup that graduated their No. 2, 4, 5 and 6 singles players.
The #24 Garnet, on the other hand, returned four of their six singles players including their top three: Mark Fallati ’18, John Larkin ’17 and Ari Cepelewicz ’18. Heading into the match, they knew what to expect and were eager for another shot at the defending champion.
“I felt pretty confident that we would be going in at our best and that they would come in at their best,” Fallati said. “I think what we wanted to prove most was that we could hang with these guys, which we didn’t prove last year. And I really felt like we had the ability to do that this year whereas last year we were totally overmatched.”
As soon as the first three matches – the doubles matches – began, it was clear this year was going to be different. Swarthmore’s number one doubles team of Fallati/Josh Powell ’18 battled the Hopkins team, holding serve eight times in a row to force a tiebreaker at 8-8. Though they lost the tiebreaker 8-6, they helped establish a precedent of intensity and resiliency for the singles matches.
Like Fallati/Powell, the number two doubles team of Cepelewicz and Simon Vernier ’19 grinded it out but fell short 8-5. Third doubles was a different story. Coming into the match, Larkin and Blake Oetting ’18 had a lot to play for. In the conference final last year, Larkin and Oetting lost their doubles match 8-0. Though this loss burned for a little, this year was a new year. By Saturday, Larkin and Oetting had more than moved on.
“Blake and I have a pretty short term memory in terms of wins and losses,” Larkin said. “We came in with fresh heads and we’ve been playing some really good ‘dubs’ recently, so we were pretty confident.”
Their confidence paid dividends, as they were able to dictate the pace of play and capture an 8-5 victory. The win cut the Hopkins lead in half, making it 2-1 going into singles play.
Before the singles matches started, the top three players had a short meeting on the first court.
Larkin remembered, “Mark and Ari came over to my court and were like ‘today’s our day. This is what we’ve worked for.’ We felt like we were kind of due for it.”
Though the team might have been due for it, they still had to “do” it. At first singles, Fallati had a daunting task. His opponent, Mike Buxbaum, is one of the best players in the country. Last year, Buxbaum ranked as high as #4 in the nation and earned a trip to the NCAA national semifinals. Though Buxbaum had a golden resume, this year Fallati was actually ranked higher than Buxbaum (8th in the Atlantic South region as opposed to 13th).
In the match, Fallati showed just why the polled coaches thought so highly of him. He was able to dictate the pace of the game, quelling Buxbaum’s power with his own strength and great court coverage. In the first set, Fallati and Buxbaum went back and forth. At 5-4, Buxbaum faltered on his serve and Fallati capitalized, taking the first set 6-4.
The second set was similar to the first. Fallati went down an early break only to break right back. Then, at 4-4 Fallati held, giving him a chance to break Buxbaum for the match. Fallati refused to back down, continued applying pressure and came away with the decisive break and the match: 6-4, 6-4.
Fallati said, “I just had to play my game to get to the finish line. I felt pretty confident most of the match that I had the ability to do it. It was just a matter of executing, putting it all together, making him feel pressured to have to beat me instead of me having to beat him.”
At the same time Fallati was playing, Larkin and Cepelewicz were also engaged in dogfights. Larkin, at number two singles, played Jeremy Dubin, an opponent Larkin defeated two years ago, 6-3, 6-2. After winning the first set 7-5, Larkin hit a speed bump in the second. Dubin got an early break and was serving to go up 4-2. The game, one of the longest of the match, went back and forth, featuring multiple deuces. But, Larkin was able to bare down, get the break and even up the score 3-3. After this turning point, Larkin elevated his game even further and won the last three to close out the win 7-5, 6-3.
Cepelewicz, the last member of the big three, had the most exhausting match. After taking the first set 7-6, he dropped the second 2-6 and had to rebound quickly in the third. At 5-5 in the third, Cepelewicz got a much needed break and then closed the match out on his serve, giving the Garnet a 4-2 lead.
With a chance to clinch, Simon Vernier ’19 and James Hahn ’19 pushed their opponents to the brink but ultimately fell short 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 and 6-4, 7-6 respectively.
Heading into number 6 singles, the score was knotted at 4 and the fate was in the hands of Powell. Lucky for Powell, he had actually been in this situation before. A little over a month ago against Stevens Tech, Powell had a chance to break the 4-4 tie and secure a win for the Garnet. In that match, after losing the first set, Powell rebounded and captured the second 7-5. However, due to an injury, Powell retired, giving the win to Stevens in the process.
This match was a different story. Powell came out of the gates firing on all cylinders. He took the first set 6-3 and began the second set with the same intensity. Powell and his opponent went back and forth, forcing a tiebreaker at 6-6.
“I felt like this was a ridiculous amount of pressure to put on one person,” Fallati said. “I think we all had a feeling when it got to that second set breaker that if anybody was perfect for that situation, it would be Josh. He would be so motivated, and we knew how badly he wanted it. And we were all super confident that he would get the job done.”
In the tiebreaker, Powell fell behind 1-2. However, he reeled off five of the next eight points, earning the mini-break back and giving himself a chance to serve for the match at 6-5. Yet, rather than serving right away, Powell did something unusual for tennis. He turned to the Mullan Center crowd and called for them to get loud. Though the fans were rowdy, Powell remained cool and collected.
“I was just thinking that I had to make a first serve and I had to go for my shots,” Powell said. “In tight situations, it is always better if you don’t think too much.”
In this case, Powell must have had a clear head. He made his first serve, forcing a poor return. Then, Powell hit a commanding forehand which led to a Hopkins unforced error, clinching the personal and the team victory.
With the win, Swarthmore controls its own destiny. If they win out, they will host the conference tournament for the first time in over a decade. But, arguably more importantly, the win will catapult the Garnet up in the rankings, sending a message to the nation that Swarthmore is on the rise and here to stay.
“We really believed at the beginning of the season that we had all of the pieces necessary to make a move up in the rankings and achieve our goals,” Fallati said. “But, what we needed was to be able to put it together on a given day. Now that we’ve been able to do that in the biggest situation that we could have imagined, I think that there isn’t a team in our conference or out of our conference that we couldn’t take down.”