That was probably the vibe of the No. 13-ranked Tennessee men’s tennis team after a stunning 4-3 loss to unranked Memphis in the season opener at Goodfriend Tennis Center on Friday afternoon.
It was anything but the way the Vols wanted to start the season. Memphis, which went 16-10 last season and 4-3 in Conference USA, beat UT for the first time in 10 dual matches.
“We knew Memphis was a very good team, and we need to win those matches,” UT coach Sam Winterbotham said.
The Vols, who were 24-5 last season and reached the NCAA tournament quarterfinals, had an easier time in a second match later Friday. The Vols (1-1) defeated Eastern Kentucky 6-1.
Against Memphis, UT won the doubles point and took a 3-0 lead in the match after singles victories by freshmen Mikelis Libietis at No. 1 and Brandon Fickey at No. 2.
Fickey, a former Webb School standout, gave the Vols a 2-0 lead with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Johnny Grimal, a sophomore from Spain. Libietis, of Latvia, posted a 6-2, 7-6 (2) victory over sophomore David O’Hare of Ireland for a 3-0 lead.
UT then lost the bottom three singles matches, and all the momentum swung the Tigers’ way heading into the deciding No. 3 singles match between Vols freshman Hunter Reese and Memphis’ Joe Salisbury, a sophomore from London.
“Guys didn’t compete,” Winterbotham said of his team’s collapse. “We talked about competing. If they don’t compete, they don’t deserve to play for Tennessee.”
When Memphis’ Leon Nasemann beat UT freshman Peter Nagovnak 6-3, 6-4 at No. 6 singles and tied the match at 3-all, Salisbury was leading Reese 4-3 and up a service break in the third set.
Reese, of Kennesaw, Ga., broke serve and tied the match, but eventually lost 7-5 in the third-set tiebreaker.
Salisbury knew his 1-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5) victory gave Memphis its first victory over UT.
“I was aware of that,” Salisbury said. “We knew coming in it would be a very, very tough match, but we were feeling good. We have a strong team and we fought hard. We’re just really happy now that we did it.”
Salisbury saved two match points in the second set against Reese, the second on a controversial line call.
With Reese serving at 5-4, Salisbury came to net and hit a volley that Reese called out. Salisbury asked for an over-rule by the chair umpire and got it.
“I think it just clipped the edge of the line,” Salisbury said. “It was very tight, and (Reese) called it out. The umpire over-ruled it and said it was in, and so then it went back to deuce. … I felt like you can’t get any closer to losing a match, so I might as well give it all I’ve got.”
Reese, who later lost to Eastern Kentucky’s Hugo Klientovsky in No. 3 singles, did the same. It just wasn’t enough.
“I thought Hunter competed really hard down the stretch,” Winterbotham said. “I have no qualms about the effort that he put in, but he and everybody else on the team needs to understand how to execute under pressure, and that’s the thing that we’ve got to learn.”
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.