Men's tennis: Momentum on Lord Jeffs' side at onset of new season

Last season’s squad was led by then-juniors Josh Rilla and Danny Babkes. Rilla, the team’s most dominant player and a formidable singles opponent, has risen to become the 24th-ranked men’s singles player nationally in Div. III tennis. Together, Rilla and Babkes proved last year that they are as vicious a 1-2 combination as they come in the NESCAC.

The Jeffs last year utilized Rilla in the first singles position and Babkes in the second spot, and the two paired up to pose a collective threat at first doubles. Rilla notched his most impressive singles victory in an extremely one-sided match against the then-top-ranked player in the nation, Middlebury College’s Brian Waldron. Rilla dismissed Waldron easily, winning 6-3, 6-3, and knocked him from his perch atop the singles rankings.

Rilla and Babkes were supported by an unusually deep and strong cast of rookies and transfers. Additionally, the veteran leadership of senior captain Max Rettig bolstered Rilla and Babkes’ leadership. Rettig, who typically manned the fifth spot in the Jeffs’ singles rotation, is the only player not returning from last year’s squad. The team will vote at the beginning of the fall session to determine who will replace Rettig as team captain. Rilla and Babkes appear to be the most likely candidates.

Perhaps the greatest asset for last year’s team was the depth provided by a talented incoming class consisting of five freshmen and a sophomore transfer. The team should be able to withstand Rettig’s departure, particularly if the squad’s sophomore contingent step its game to an even higher level this season.

All told, last year’s newcomers made up half of the entire singles rotation and also contributed substantially in doubles. Lenny Lepner ’07, a transfer from the University of South Carolina, had perhaps the greatest impact, immediately sliding into the third singles slot and frustrating opponents with his remarkably consistent play. Playing against Lepner is perhaps the closest you can get to playing against a brick wall-or, more accurately, a ball-feeder machine that sends every shot over the net with relentless persistence.

Playing in the fourth spot behind Lepner, first-year Mike Mintz blew many an adversary off the court with his forehand while fellow rookies Geoff Schwartz, Jeff Wan, Tal Avrahami and Sam Maurey helped hold down the last singles spot and the doubles rotation.

Mintz’s tremendous contribution to the team was most apparent in the year’s most climatic moment. Playing against Trinity College with a national ranking and possibly a trip to regionals on the line, the weight of the team’s aspirations fell on the shoulders of Mintz. Rilla had been off his game and lost his match quickly, and the Jeffs had lost the doubles point, but victories by Babkes, Lepner and Rettig had knotted the contest at three matches apiece. Both teams surrounded the final court as Mintz and Bantam Jon Hart prepared to begin a decisive third set. Clearly exhausted and cramping, Mintz quickly fell behind a break at 3-2. Mintz, however, somehow managed to gather a second wind and did not lose another game, taking the match and giving the Jeffs a 4-3 victory. Only weeks later, Mintz followed his clutch performanace with a decisive 6-2, 6-0 victory over a high school rival, William Fleder of the Tufts University Jumbos.

The Jeffs took the confidence gained from the Trinity match and used it later to beat 18th-ranked Bates College and finish the year as the 17th-ranked Div. III team in the country. There were some stumbles along the way, however. The team was certainly disappointed with its fifth-place finish in the NESCAC Championships, and it is clear that there is still much to work on if the team wants to catch conference powerhouses Middlebury and Williams Colleges. Middlebury posted a decisive victory at the NESCAC championships, with Bowdoin, Williams and Bates Colleges also finishing ahead of the Jeffs.

If the Jeffs are to improve on last season’s few disappointments, they will have to work on one of their most glaring weaknesses-doubles play. In every match, the Jeffs constantly seemed to be playing catch-up in singles contests after squandering the doubles point. In addition, the team won just one doubles match at the NESCAC Championships, placing a tremendous and perhaps impossible burden on the team’s singles performance.

The team clearly has enough talented players to succeed at doubles, but to do so they will need to develop better teamwork amongst their doubles pairs. Certainly the fact that every player from last year’s top three doubles teams is returning for this season portends improvement in that area. Time will tell if more experience together will produce more solid doubles performances for the Jeffs.

With so many strong players returning, the Jeffs are understandably optimistic. “Having lost only one senior player, it’s hard not to feel that we will be a good a team with a year’s more of experience,” said Wan. It seems a little too soon to hope to overtake second-ranked Middlebury for a NESCAC Championship, but it is decidedly possible that the Jeffs will end the year ranked among the top 10 in the nation.

The Jeffs begin their fall slate at home on Sept. 23 against Salve Regina University and follow soon after with contests at Brandeis University on Sept. 27 and at Williams on Sept. 30 in the Wilson/ITA New England Championship.