Updated: April 18, 2016 at 7:45 p.m.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The 2016 Atlantic 10 Tournament had been a breeze for men’s tennis until Sunday’s final game against top-seeded VCU.
The Colonials blanked No. 7 seed Duquesne 4-0 in the quarterfinal Friday and did the same against No. 3 seed Richmond in the semis Saturday to reach their seventh straight appearance in the conference title match.
But against the Rams, the team found itself tied 3-3 with one match left.
GW’s fate rested on the racket of senior Cahit Kapukiran, playing at the five-spot, who had dropped his first set 1-6, but battled back to win a second 6-1 and force a third.
All eyes in the Boar’s Head Sports Complex were focused on the Izmir, Turkey native, who went on to clinch the program’s third-straight A-10 Championship, its fifth in six seasons, taking the final set 6-2 and besting VCU 4-3.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Kapukiran said. “It’s a great honor to be the one who clinches it for the team, but I’m proud of everyone. It’s a team sport, and everyone fought, gave everything and did what they had to do. That was the difference between us and VCU. We fought as a team.”
Strong veteran play was the story all weekend for the Colonials. Kapukiran also helped clinch GW’s doubles point against the Rams, winning 7-5 at the two-spot alongside sophomore Chris Reynolds.
Senior Danil Zelenkov, the only fourth-year Colonial, and junior Julius Tverijonas opened play Sunday with a dominant 6-3 doubles victory, providing GW crucial momentum.
“[The seniors] have been clutch,” interim head coach Torrie Browning said. “That’s the only way to describe them. They wear their heart on their sleeve. They’re emotional guys who give everything for the team. It’s going to be sad not having them next year, but they’ve meant so much to this program. That’s why we’ve been so successful.”
Zelenkov was a big reason the Colonials made it to Sunday’s final. In the two-spot, Zelenkov clinched both team victories against the Dukes and the Spiders with straight set wins.
“I think being a senior and being able to do that is sort of a special feeling, because you know your days and matches are counted,” Zelenkov said following GW’s victory over Richmond Saturday.
After taking the doubles point Sunday, GW took a quick 3-0 lead after solid singles victories by Reynolds and Tverijonas.
At 6-foot-4-inches, Reynolds put on a commanding performance for the Colonials all tournament. The skilled sophomore was the first to put away his singles opponent on Saturday and Sunday, both in straight sets.
“[Reynolds] has been amazing,” Browning said. “The growth I’ve seen from him this past season – he’s just grown so much as a player and as a person, and it’s so great to see. He’s really been key.”
But VCU did not go down easily. Once GW went up three, the Rams’ Louis Ishizaka then bested sophomore Christos Hadjigeorgiou at the six-spot. Despite coming back from down 5-0 in the third set, Zelenkov ultimately lost his match, as did sophomore Chris Fletcher, 6-2, 7-6 (6) to allow the Rams to knot the team score.
Despite the lopsided first-set score, Kapukiran dropped the opening frame by losing a handful of deuce points. He came back stronger than ever in the second set to flip the script on VCU’s Arvid Noren and force a championship-deciding third set.
“First game of the second set was really important, and after I started winning the first two or three games, [Noren] started cramping, and at the end when it was 4-1 in that set, I realized I was going to win,” Kapukiran said. “I was just waiting for one other win on another court, and I knew in the third set I would take it because my opponent was down.”
His third set victory was a convincing one. Aided by booming cheers from his teammates, who all had a front row seat at court five, the senior emerged victorious, solidifying GW men’s tennis as back-to-back-to-back A-10 champions.
Sunday’s action marked the fourth straight final between GW and VCU. The Colonials have now won the last three tournaments.
With the win, GW also earned its third consecutive automatic bid to the men’s tennis NCAA Championships. The Colonials will await their seeding in the tournament, which kicks off May 13 and 14 in Tulsa, Okla.
“I think we’re making a statement here,” Kapukiran said. “We’re going to leave a legacy, me and Danil [Zelenkov], and I hope the other guys are going to keep it going. VCU is under pressure now. They haven’t won for three years, and I don’t think they will anytime soon.”
This post is updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that senior Danil Zelenkov was one of two fourth-years on the men’s tennis team. He is the only fourth-year, as senior Cahit Kapukiran transferred into the program as a junior. Also, the NCAA Championship first and second rounds are also played regionally and begin May 13 and 14, not May 19.