Oct. 6, 2013
(photo courtesy of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association/itatennis.com)
TULSA, Okla. -- After three seasons as one of the top doubles teams in college tennis, Tennessee juniors Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese now have a national championship to go along with their No. 1 ranking.
With a focused mindset and experience on their side, Libietis and Reese captured their first national title Sunday with a third-set tiebreaker victory at the ITA All-American Championships.
Libietis and Reese defeated UCLA qualifiers Marcos Giron and Mackenzie McDonald 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (2) to close the book on a five-win weekend for the No. 1 seeds.
"It was impressive toward the end of the match how Hunter and Mikelis relaxed and enjoyed it," Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "They had the winning mindset. Focused, but loose. It was just a case of them executing."
Before this week, Libietis and Reese had not fared well on the national tournament scene. Between the NCAA Doubles Championships and the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships, the two had managed a 1-4 record together.
While they had always excelled during team dual matches, Libietis and Reese both felt they needed to back up their No. 1 national ranking with a strong performance at the ITA All-American.
"For me, this means so much," Libietis said. "We hadn't done well in these tournaments. We'd lose first or second round. It was so frustrating. When we got the semifinals this week, it was good but I told Reesey we couldn't stop there. It's very rare that No. 1 seeds win tournaments, I think because of all the pressure. It was unbelievable that we finally won a major."
The finals pitted the Vols -- now one of the more veteran teams in college tennis -- against a new UCLA team featuring a pair of top players. Giron had won two ITA Futures titles in the last month, and Mackenzie was one of the most highly touted freshman in the country.
"These two guys are great singles players," Libietis said. "They made shots that were unbelievable. It doesn't matter that they're new. It carries into doubles. They were going to make great shots. We just had to play it point by point."
The Vols trailed 5-2 in the final set before playing some of the most solid doubles play of the tournament.
Reese had his serve broken early in the set, but the Vols' title hopes were not derailed. The Vols broke back and eventually tied the match at 5-5. In the deciding tiebreaker that followed two games later, Libietis ripped a crosscourt return on match point and Reese followed with a putaway at the net to clinch the title.
While Libietis and Reese had experience winning a tiebreaker over TCU in the semifinals, Reese said their confidence came from tense situations while playing at the top of the UT doubles lineup the last two seasons and their work in practice.
"It was good for us just knowing we could play tough and win tiebreakers," Reese said. "We had experience. It didn't come from yesterday. It came from three years. We know what to expect from each other out on the court."
Over the last three years, Libietis and Reese have compiled 42 victories as a team and are starting their junior seasons 5-0.
Libietis and Reese became the third team in Tennessee history to win the doubles title at the prestigious ITA All-American, the first major championship of the college tennis season. They join John-Patrick Smith and Boris Conkic, the 2009 winners, and Byron Talbot and Shelby Cannon, who won the title in 1986.
It is impressive company for Libietis and Reese. The Vols' four previous doubles champions are the only players in program history to win 100 career matches in both singles and doubles.
"I'm really proud of Mikelis and Hunter," Winterbotham said. "This is a great tournament. To be able to win it is a huge accomplishment. Let's not forget that, and enjoy that."
Smith remains the only singles champion. He swept both titles in Tulsa in 2009.
On Thursday, the prospects of winning a title in Tulsa did not look promising. Both Libietis and Reese woke up with a stomach illness that seriously limited their on-court performance.
The Vols ended up playing two singles matches each that day with Libietis staying on court for more than five hours for singles alone. They were one of the last doubles teams to leave the courts that night with an 8-5 victory over a pair of N.C. State qualifiers, and the quest for the title was underway.
"It was just about surviving the first day," Libietis said. "I was on court a really long time in my singles matches that day. In doubles, we just tried to win. I knew I'd feel better the next day, and we played a lot better."
Libietis, the No. 1 seed in both singles and doubles, lost a long three-set match in the second round in singles Thursday. Reese made it to the second round of consolation singles on Friday.
"It was rough but I knew Labeets could survive doubles after he lost on the first day," Reese said. "I was worried about playing both singles and doubles, being out there for three or four matches a day. It was a blessing in disguise that I lost and could just focus on doubles."
INDOOR SEASON BEGINS
The Vols will now turn their attention to the indoor portion of the fall season, which starts next week.
Tennessee will host the USTA/ITA Ohio Valley Regional Championships beginning Thursday on campus at Goodfriend Tennis Center and across town at the Knoxville Racquet Club. Admission to all matches is free.
The singles and doubles winners advance to next month's USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships.
"Coming into this tournament, I felt pressure myself that we were not doing so well this fall as a team," Libietis said. "I wanted to win matches and I wanted Reesey to win to show the younger guys that we can do it. I was so frustrated on the first day when I got sick and couldn't compete. In doubles, I knew we could do well."