The men’s tennis team saved its best tennis for when it mattered most.
The Colonials entered the A-10 tournament as the fifth seed and began their path to the A-10 title competition by defeating La Salle 5-0 Friday. GW pulled off two upsets as it advanced in the competition, taking down No. 4 seeded Temple Friday 4-1, and surprising top-seeded Charlotte 4-2 in the semifinals Saturday to advance.
The Colonials faced a familiar foe in the finals, taking on Xavier, the team GW defeated last season to win the A-10 tournament. Echoing the previous year’s performance, the Colonials claimed the A-10 championship for the second straight season, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in the process.
“Xavier is always a tough opponent. But all of our opponents are tough opponents,” senior Ugur Atalay said. “Xavier, even though we beat them last year, we always know that they are tough and that they can play. [It’s a] good thing that we came through.”
Xavier began the day by nabbing the doubles point, putting GW in a one-point hole entering singles competition. The Colonials regained ground when senior Richard Blumenfeld won at No. 6 singles, followed by sophomore Viktor Svensson and junior Alexander van Gils, who took No. 5 and No. 3 singles, respectively.
But Xavier rebounded with a victory at No. 4 singles, and topped freshman Francisco Dias at No. 1 singles, tying the contest. The day’s match and the conference title ultimately came down to Atalay, who has established a reputation as a clutch performer over his tenure at GW.
“If we are deadlocked at three-all and Ugur Atalay is playing in the deciding match, I do not doubt that he will win,” head coach Greg Munoz said.
After dropping his first set 3-6, Atalay stormed back to capture the second and third sets, 7-6 (5), 6-1. He concentrated on shaking off the pressure after dropping the first set, Atalay said, focusing instead on the promise of additional competition should the Colonials win the title.
He and Blumenfeld will extend their careers in NCAA tournament competition, and that was Atalay’s motivation as he took the court Sunday.
“I’m told that I handle it well, playing under pressure. I know myself. With too much pressure, I can’t play my best, so I try to not think about it.” Atalay said. “This year, being a senior made me feel totally different playing in the A-10 tournament. This could’ve been my last match ever, but luckily it’s not. I did not want to end my career here.”
After earning the No. 1 seed in the A-10 tournament for four straight seasons, GW was more of an underdog this year, entering postseason play as the fifth seed. The lower seeding meant the team didn’t earn a first-round bye, but GW remained focused.
As the A-10 grew stronger this season, the Colonials were often hampered by nagging injuries to various members of their squad.They went into every match confident, Blumenfeld said, a presence of mind that helped the team fight its way to its second straight title.
“We’ve overcome so much this season, battling injuries,” Blumenfeld said. “In our minds, we thought that we were the favorites every time. The other teams know what we are capable of, and injuries don’t really change that. Everybody came through for us because we all wanted to win.”
Munoz sees this year’s squad as his most resilient, calling it “our best team ever, I believe.”
While the Colonials were unable to make it past the first round of the tournament last season, falling to Duke, they’ve been given a second chance this year.
“One thing that I enjoy is making history. I don’t think that a fifth seed ever had a shot at winning the conference tournament in the past,” Munoz said. “We played with our hearts. We were almost down and out, but we just kept trying to figure out how to find a way. We all contributed in some way or another and we made it happen.”