Veteran leaders, young stars shine as Irish edge out Broncos, 4-3
Aidan Thomas | Tuesday, January 24, 2023
The Notre Dame men’s tennis team continued a strong start to the year, improving to 4-1 with a tight 4-3 victory over Western Michigan. The Broncos have been one of the nation’s strongest mid-major programs for years, winning the MAC Tournament the last four years it’s been played.
“Western Michigan is a really good team. Hats off to them. They’ve had this same core of players for two or three years now,” Irish head coach Ryan Sachire said. “They have a bunch of fifth year seniors, true seniors. They’ve played a lot of tennis matches, they’ve won a lot. They’re dominant in the MAC. We knew this was going to be a tough match. We knew they were very good and a team that is capable of getting an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.”
The Irish did not get off to an ideal start, dropping the doubles point in an extremely close battle. Freshman Sebastian Dominko and senior Connor Fu won at the top court, 6-4, but the Irish couldn’t bring home a victory at either of the lower courts. The Broncos won on the third court in a tiebreak to take a 1-0 lead in the match.
“It was a really strong opponent. The doubles point didn’t go our way,” Sachire commented. “It was really tight, really close, but you get down 1-0, it’s tough to win four singles.”
However, the Irish got the energy boost they needed from their veteran corps. Playing next to each other on Courts 2 and 4 at Eck Tennis Pavilion, Fu and fellow senior Matthew Che delivered straight-set victories to vault the Irish into the lead. Fu put forth a dominant effort, collecting a couple of breaks and riding the momentum to a 6-3, 6-4 victory.
“Had to come out pretty fast. Losing the doubles point is always tough, but you have to bring the energy for your teammates. I think I did that pretty well in the first set,” Fu noted. “Came out pretty strong in the second set as well. He had a good push back, but ultimately closed it out which was big for us.”
Che’s win was more adventurous, but he still brought home a big point for the Irish, defeating Peter Kuszynski. After going down a break early, the senior broke back to take a 4-3 lead. With the match tied 5-5, Che ensured it would at least go to a tiebreak with a clean sweep to hold for a 6-5 lead. His blistering cross-court forehand winner sealed the game.
In a tiebreak, Che produced three unforced errors early to go down 3-2. However, down a point and with Kusynzki serving, Che rallied. First, he returned a Kusynzki serve with a power forehand winner. On the ensuing crucial rally, Che sprinted across the back baseline, skidding to his backhand side. Kusynzki sensed an opportunity and crashed the net, only to see Che’s skidding shot loft over his head and drop down for a 4-3 lead. Che took the lead and his serve back, where he immediately won two straight points to garner three opportunities for a set point. After Kusynzki saved a pair on his own serve, Che delivered a thundering ace to seal the first-set victory.
In the second set, Che won four straight games to go up 5-2. After suffering a break in his first opportunity to clinch the match, Che broke right back — his third break of the second set — to earn the win.
“What our seniors did in Connor Fu and Matt Che winning in straight sets and beating two quality opponents who had beaten them previously in their careers … that’s what leaders do,” Sachire said. “Really proud of those guys for stepping up and getting it done.
“Today, I was trying to share energy a lot. I was yelling to the other side a lot,” Fu added. “[Che] was a bit more composed with himself. But people give off energy different ways, and it’s our job to do that for our team.”
The Irish would trail again after seeing defeats on the third and sixth courts. Graduate student Aditya Vashistha was up early, holding and breaking for a 2-0 lead. However, he was broken in his efforts to garner a big-time advantage, and he struggled to regain the momentum. He was broken three times in the first set and ultimately lost, 4-6, 3-6. It was his first singles loss of the season. Freshman Noah Becker fell to 2-2 on the season with a 3-6, 5-7 loss on Court No. 6.
That left the match to be decided by the first and fifth courts, both with newcomers to the Irish lineup battling it out. On the top court, freshman Sebastian Dominko dominated the first set, earning a break while up 2-1 to garner a convincing lead and win 6-3. However, in the second set, it was Dominko who was broken, going down 4-1. However, the freshman battled back to win three straight games, on two holds and a break. When the match went to tiebreak, Dominko had little issue in setting down his foe, 7-2, to win 6-3, 7-6. A vicious slicing forehand from the lefty ended the tiebreak.
“He’s obviously a great player and competitor,” Sachire said of his Slovenian freshman. “He played against a really good opponent and stepped up big time at the end of that match and set the table for Yu [Zhang] to close it out.”
Zhang, a sophomore who didn’t crack the singles lineup last year, suffered early breaks in both sets but maintained an unbeaten record on the year to secure the Irish win. He also won a tiebreaker in his first set, winning the first five points of the game to claim the first set. He also punctuated the victory with a powerful ace, winning the tiebreak 7-1. That gave the Irish a 3-0 record in tiebreaks during singles play.
“What it comes down to is clarity and confidence in what you do in the court. You’ve been playing an entire set. You kind of have a feel for what your opponent is going to do. It comes down to who executes the best. Those are all pressure-packed points,” Sachire noted. “The better player typically is the one who can come through in those big moments. Those guys executed really well in the tiebreakers.”
Zhang went down early in the second set as well, but a late break gave him a chance to serve for the victory. He made no mistake, losing just one of the ensuing service points to claim the win on the fifth court. He improved to 4-0 on the season.
“I was proud of how we fought. We need to do a better job of holding our serve. Zhang got broken in the first game of the first and second set. You do that and you’re looking uphill the entire set. It’s tough and I’m super proud of the fight, the battle.” Sachire commented. “We’re clearly not clicking on all cylinders right now, but nobody is. We’ll be playing our best tennis as the season goes on … this is where you learn, where you grow, where you build confidence. Super proud to win our first 4-3 match of the season, and it’s a match that we can look back on the rest of the way.
Contact Aidan Thomas at [email protected]