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Men's Tennis Defeats UMass Amherst in Final Meet

By Daniel Wang
Team Member

The four soon-to-be-graduating senior members of the men's tennis team hoped to close the final dual meet of their careers on a high note on May 5. After a season of disappointments and frustrations, they each came through, and contributed to a 42 win over the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

The action at the J.B. Carr Indoor Tennis Center kicked off with the doubles play. Each of MIT's three pairs fell behind at the beginning, but recovered the lead in the midst of exciting action on all courts. First doubles team Jay Muelhoefer '94 and Nick Tsai '94 demonstrated why they were one of the top Division III pairs in New England, exploding to overcome a 21 deficit, for an 83 win.

On the adjacent court, Mark Erickson '94 and Jason Weintraub '97 experienced similar problems early on, falling behind, 43. They too, however, played more aggressively and more consistently to storm back into the match. They won their match, 84, giving MIT the majority of the doubles matches, and 10 lead in team score.

Throughout the entire season, the Engineers had struggled to win a point from doubles. This time, however, they managed to win the point for the first time, since the institution of the new Intercollegiate Tennis Association Division I format. Under the new rules, the three doubles teams play abbreviated matches; whichever team wins at least two of the matches earns a point toward the team score. With the shortened matches, a quick start was critical to the final outcome.

Three seniors were a major part of the doubles effort and three seniors turned out to be major contributions in the singles play as well. Interestingly, MIT captured points from the top three positions, while failing to win the three matches at the bottom of the lineup.

Throughout the entire season, second singles player Lomelin and third singles player Erickson had managed to stay close in most of their matches, only to come short in the end. This time, they managed to eliminate the possibility of repeating such a scenario. The shots went in their favor, as they both won in straight sets to give MIT a 30 lead.

Meanwhile, on the other courts, the UMass Minutemen showed that they still had a chance of winning the dual meet. Muelhoefer at first singles, did not have an easy time with his opponent's steady baseline play.

At the far end of the tennis bubble, fourth singles player Tsai started out slowly, dropping the first set, 63. Tsai then fought back to win the second set, 64, but his opponent regrouped to capture the final set, 62, and the match.

As Muelhoefer was still fighting his adversary and just as Tsai finished, fifth and sixth singles players Weintraub and Dan Wang '97 took to the courts. In the first set, Muelhoefer managed to stay ahead to pull off a 75 win. In the second set, however, errors helped him fall behind, 52. With a fighting spirit that pulled him out of big holes many times before, Muelhoefer refused to relinquish the set. Coming up with big shots at critical points, he managed to win four games in a row to place himself back into the set.

Next to Muelhoefer, Weintraub and Wang were unable to make a team victory any easier. UMass players won close first sets in both matches, showing that a team victory, no matter how close, was still possible.

The top singles match looked like it would be deciding factor for the team result. Muelhoefer and his opponent stayed close to each other in score until a tiebreaker. The MIT player, as he had done many times in the past, responded to the pressure and won the match with a narrow 75 win in the tiebreak.

Muelhoefer's win clinched the team victory for MIT, which gave some sense to his teammates. Weintraub went on to force a third set, but came up short, dropping a third-set tiebreaker. Wang was behind 42 in the second set when he and his opponents were pulled off the court. The teams had to give up the courts to contract users, which decided the match to end up a draw. Both players were disappointed that they were not able to finish their contest.

Coach Jeff Hamilton commented on the overall result, "It was great to end the season on a positive note." Hamilton also said, "It was also good for the team to win three out of the last four matches."

Four careers conclude

The match was the final dual meet, fortunately ending on a high note, not only the season, but also for the careers of four seniors. Muelhoefer, Lomelin, Erickson, and Tsai have together been a part of different MIT teams, with a wide variety of successes. Early on, they were part of a New England juggernaut. Years later, they then became the backbone of a team which struggled against the same, albeit improved, opponents.

Of the four, only Muelhoefer started for all four years, playing the bottom singles position his freshman. Erickson and Tsai did not even make the varsity squad their first year. From there, all four went on to the top of the team.

Muelhoefer and Tsai had an opportunity to extend their careers, with participation in the NCAA Division III Championships. Immediately after completing their final exams, they headed to the University of the Redlands, in Redlands, Calif. for the doubles competition.

As one of the top 10 ranked doubles pairs in the nation, they came with hopes to make up for their disappointing first-round loss at the Rolex National Small College Tennis Championships in October.

Tsai, despite playing only two seasons of varsity tennis, has already proven to be a major contributor to the team. Last season, he played at the bottom of the lineup and did not attract much attention, but was still an important part of the team effort. One example was his wins in singles and doubles matches which allowed the Engineers to edge Tufts University, a major rival, 54.

The next season, he brought his doubles skills to a higher level, playing the top flight with Muelhoefer. The two styles complemented each other, allowing them, when playing together, to complete the regular season undefeated against New England Division III teams.

Muelhoefer, recipient of the Malcolm G. Kispert Award, for outstanding performance as a scholar-athlete, has established himself as one of the most accomplished players of the MIT men's tennis program. His success started from his freshman year, when he was the only member to win points for MIT at the NCAA team tournament.

With three different partners, Muelhoefer then went on to win three consecutive New England doubles titles. Last season, he and Alan Walpole '93 won the Rolex National title, and finished the season ranked fourth in the nation. This year, the two-time All-American has been nominated for the ITA Arthur Ashe Sportsmanship Award.

Muelhoefer has been quite successful in his first and only season as MIT's top singles player. As a result, he will be part of an elite field of 64 in the singles tournament.

After the last dual meet, Hamilton stated simply of the four, "We will miss their leadership."

New team next season

The graduation of the top four singles and three of the top four doubles players will give the team a much different look next season. The team will be somewhat inexperienced, as four freshmen and one sophomore with varsity experience will return. However, they have much room and time for improvement.

Coach Jeff Hamilton hopes next year will introduce a crop of talented freshmen to bring in new blood and contribute to the team effort. The team has been frustrated in previous years by top recruits who choose to attend other schools, especially larger ones with stronger teams.

In any case, the Engineers hope to regain the dominance in New England, and national competitiveness that they once knew. That is especially true for Hamilton, who coached teams to the NCAA Championships in 1991 and 1992. During that period, Hamilton once had a team ranked as high as 10th nationally, and coached players to numerous titles. Doing so will probably be easier said than done; even the graduating players on this year's squad might be difficult to replace.