Oct. 24, 2011
BY AMANDA PRUITT
He's played on the courts of Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and soon Tennessee freshman Mikelis Libietis can say he's played at the site of the U.S. Open.
Libietis and fellow freshman Hunter Reese ousted the top-seeded team in the final of the USTA/ITA Ohio Valley Regional Championships on Monday to qualify for the national indoor tournament next week in the shadows of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The freshman duo jumped ahead early and never looked back in an 8-3 victory over Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek of Kentucky on the Vols' home courts at Goodfriend Tennis Center.
With the win, Libietis and Reese qualified for the exclusive 16-team field at the USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships that runs Nov. 3-6 at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y.
The indoor courts are located on the grounds of the U.S. Open.
For Libietis, the trip marks his first to New York as either a player or even a tourist. Reese has never been to Flushing as a competitor, but he took a trip to the U.S. Open several years ago.
"It's going to be a fun first trip for me," Libietis said. "It's just amazing. Before the tournament, me and Reesey were talking, `Yeah, let's go to New York,' but that was six matches away. But we did it. Now we're going to New York to play against the best doubles teams in the USA. I think we are ready."
A day after defeating the second-seeded Indiana team, Libietis and Reese faced a challenging task in playing Kentucky's top pairing of Quigley and Musialek. Two hours before the doubles match, the two Wildcats had squared off in the singles final with Musialek winning 6-3, 6-3.
In the doubles final, the momentum tilted in Tennessee's favor from the start. Libietis won four straight points on his serve alone to open the championship match, and Tennessee was off to the races.
The Vols broke Quigley's serve in the very next game and broke Musialek's serve two games later, and it did not take long for Tennessee to build a 5-0 advantage.
The big lead could not be taken lightly for the Vols, though. On Sunday, Quigley and Musialek had rallied from down 5-0 to defeated third seeded Isade Juneau and Jeremy Langer 8-6.
"They had a great comeback against a great team, but if we kept up our level of play, we were still in the driver's seat," Reese said. "They were going to keep fighting, I knew that, but I felt we were still on top of them."
Kentucky's pair broke Reese's serve and eventually tightened the score to 5-3, but the Vols won the last three games to seal the regional title and assure themselves a trip to the national stage.
The tournament title was the first in Reese's career and the second doubles trophy for Libietis. The native of Latvia swept the singles and doubles finals in the top flight of the Tennessee Fall Invitational on Sept. 18, the last tournament he played until this week because of injuries.
Libietis now has a 9-0 doubles record to start his collegiate career, and Reese is hardly far behind at 8-0.
THE LONG ROAD
Monday's final ended one of the largest doubles tournaments in college tennis. On Thursday, the field started with 61 teams. Five days and six matches later, Libietis and Reese were the last players standing.
"It was a long road," Reese said. "Six matches; that's a big tournament. It's really good to finish on top. I think we got better every match."
On the final two days of the tournament, the Vols duo faced their most challenging tasks: defeated the two top-seeded teams in the tournament. They beat 25th-ranked Stephen Vogl and Josh MacTaggart of Indiana 8-5 Sunday afternoon and followed that performance up with a win against 19th-ranked Quigley and Musialek on Monday.
"We played a good semis and today we also played really good," Libietis said. "We just need to keep it up and keep practicing. We will probably be practicing a lot of doubles in the next week. We're going to get better."
Part of Libietis and Reese's steady improvement during the final two days of the tournament came in their preparation. They ran intense doubles drills with coaches Sam Winterbotham and Chris Woodruff for 40 minutes before their semifinal and final matches.
"They really prepared well the last two days," Winterbotham said. "I think that's the biggest thing we'll take out of this as a learning tool: the more they prepare, the better they're going to play. That's key to a very young team. If we understand that quickly, we can get good."
Tennessee last won the USTA/ITA Ohio Valley Regional Championship doubles title in 2009 when Boris Conkic and Rhyne Williams beat teammates John-Patrick Smith and Davey Sandgren in the title match 8-6.
Looking to next week, the Vols have won just one doubles title at the USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships. All-Americans Chris Mahoney and Pablo Montana won the championship in 1996.
Paul Annacone, an eventual top-15 ATP singles and doubles player, and Mark Herrington were finalists in 1984.
Williams won the singles title last season, defeating Southern California's Steve Johnson in three sets.