April 17, 2003
OXFORD, Miss. -- Tennessee's men's tennis team fought valiantly and left nothing on the court following its first-round SEC Tournament matchup with the No. 6-seeded Auburn Tigers. But once again, the young Vol netters came up just-short in an exciting, but disappointing 4-3 loss Thursday at the Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center.
"We actually played pretty well," Tennessee head coach Michael Fancutt said immediately after the loss. "That was probably one of our better matches of the year. Most of the guys on the team, I think, put in a great effort. But if you're not good enough, you're not good enough. You should always be giving 100 percent effort all the time and I think most of the guys did that today and that's all you can ask of them."
The doubles portion of the match set the tone for what would ultimately develop into arguably the most thrilling Tennessee contest of the season. Auburn's No. 2 doubles team of Rodrigo Minozzo and Markus Schiller started things off by dispatching the Vol pairing of Mark Henderson and Vincent Perna. The No. 11-seeded Vols then answered back at the No. 3 spot, where Rawl Martin and Simon Rea evened things up for the Big Orange.
The No. 1 doubles contest was a hard-fought struggle which pitted the No.
30-ranked Tennessee team of Mark Dietrich and Wade Orr against the No.
19-ranked duo of All-SEC first-teamer Rameez Junaid and 2002 NCAA Doubles
Champion Andrew Colombo. The Tiger tandem went up a break midway through the
contest, and managed to hold off the Vols' efforts to force a tiebreaker.
Colombo and Junaid eventually came away with an 8-6 victory, giving the No.
20-ranked Tigers a 1-0 match lead.
The action only intensified once singles competition began, as it quickly became evident that nothing would come easy for either squad. The match bore little resemblance to the March 9, regular-season meeting between the two teams, which Auburn won by a score of 5-2 in Knoxville.
When the singles scoring finally commenced, it was Auburn who struck first. Gabor Zoltan Pelva recorded a straight-set victory over Vol sophomore Mark Dietrich and Tennessee was faced with a 2-0 match deficit.
At the No. 3 spot, Vol junior Wade Orr jumped out to a 5-0 first-set lead against Colombo. Despite a nagging back injury which has required daily treatment, Orr used his experience and determination to fend off Colombo's rocket-blast serves with impressive ease. Orr never lost control of the contest, and his clinic-like performance earned him his 50th singles win as a Vol, as well as a point for his team.
The crowd's attention was then drawn to the battle at the No. 1 spot, between two of the nation's best players, No. 11-ranked Junaid and No. 25-ranked Rea. After a dominant regular-season, during which Rea deemed himself worthy of the moniker "Old Faithful," the New Zealand native spewed forth winner after winner on his way to yet another upset-victory. His team-best 29th singles win also marked his ninth victory over a ranked opponent this season.
With the match tied at two points apiece, Tennessee took a brief lead when Mark Henderson captured victory at the No. 5 spot. The Australian sophomore, who like Orr, had received treatment for a back injury earlier in the day, toppled Auburn's Markus Schiller in a gutsy straight-set effort.
On court No. 6, Martin was outlasted in a second-set tiebreaker by Auburn's Tom George, and the Tigers regained the lead by a count of 3-2. In a season that saw him thrown into the fire in the toughest conference for men's tennis in the nation, Martin has endeared himself to the fans on Rocky Top. The hard-hitting, humble freshman established himself as a potentially-dangerous player in the years to come.
The No. 4 singles contest between Perna and Auburn junior Rodrigo Minozzo then became the focus of everyone's attention, as it would decide which team would advance to face No. 3-seed Ole Miss Friday.
With the sun beating down and his teammates cheering him on, a drained and exhausted Perna refused to give in to cramps or fatigue in the deciding third set. With the Tennessee trainer administering treatment to the Vol freshman at each changeover, the score drew closer and closer as the set wore on.
Minozzo finally took the lead after breaking Perna's serve to go up 6-5. Moments later, a well-placed Minozzo drop shot evaded Perna, and Auburn escaped with a 4-3 win.
"We were lucky to win today," Auburn head coach Eric Shore said. "[Tennessee] put in a really good effort."
Tennessee's record dropped to 9-12 with its sixth consecutive loss, and the Vols exited the conference tournament in the first-round for the first time since 1997.
Fancutt and his troops will now wait to see if an NCAA berth awaits. Selections are announced April 30, and if the Vols receive an invite, they will most likely travel to Duke (Durham, N.C.) or Vanderbilt (Nashville) for the NCAA Regionals May 9-11. Tennessee has not missed the NCAA Tournament since the 1992 season.