The Ole Miss men's tennis program showed Sunday afternoon why it is one of the best in the country year in and year out and the winningest athletic program at Ole Miss the past decade and a half.
Two top 10 heavyweights met on the Palmer-Salloum Courts. The Florida Gators, unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play, were perhaps the favorite, even though they were ranked 7th nationally and Ole Miss 4th and despite the fact that the Rebels had beaten them in Chicago earlier this semester at the National Indoor Championships.
But on Senior Day 2005 for UM seniors Catalin Gard, Karim Alayli, and David Donaldson, Ole Miss stepped up, won the all important doubles point, and basically rolled from there to win its fourth straight SEC West title outright, while also tying Florida for first place overall in the league.
Ole Miss improved to 19-2 overall and 9-1 in the SEC, while Florida dropped to 16-5 overall and also 9-1 in league play. The Rebels travel to arch-rival Mississippi State next Saturday for a 1 p.m. match, seeking to repeat as overall SEC Champions. The Gators play at South Carolina.
"We talked before the match about how everyone deserved this big match," UM Coach Billy Chadwick said. "We were playing for the SEC, and everyone had worked really hard to get to this point. Cat (Gard) said it all before the match. He told everyone (on the team) that they had to play every point like it was their last. That's the way we started off, and that's the way we finished. It's important to be at your best when it counts the most. It was a great team effort, and a great day for the Rebels at home."
The Rebs came out smoking in doubles and jumped out to early leads on courts one and two in getting the large, supportive crowd of several hundred into the match. Gard and Eric Claesson dominated the nation's No. 22 ranked team of Hamid Mirzadeh and Greg Ouellette 8-1 at No. 1 doubles. Florida won the No. 3 position 8-3, but the Reb duo of Fredrik Aarum and Erling Tveit closed out a 8-2 win on court two to clinch the first point of the match.
"The doubles point was so big, because the crowd got so behind us," Chadwick said of the number, estimated at nearly 1,000 Rebel fans. "Because we were able to play so well in doubles, we all raised it up another level – us and the crowd."
After winning the doubles point, the Rebels honored their three seniors prior to the start of singles play and presented each of them framed action photos during the 15-minute intermission.
Then in singles, junior Juan Pablo Di Cesare gave the Rebels their second point of the day by downing Florida's Chris Brandi, 6-2, 6-1 at No. 5 singles, improving to 17-1 in dual matches and 9-1 in the SEC.
Florida's Nestor Briceno then defeated Rebel freshman Jakob Klaeson 6-4, 6-1 at No. 4 singles to make it 2-1.
Since it was Senior Day, what happened next was special. Gard and Alayli won the next two points to clinch the match for Ole Miss.
Gard followed up his impressive play in doubles with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Mirzadeh on court one to give the Rebels a 3-1 lead.
Alayli, who had played some singles matches this season as had Aarum, asked Chadwick for a chance to play in his final regular season home match, and he came through, winning 6-1, 7-6(5) over UF's Ryan Sherry with the match-deciding point.
Alayli was down 3-1 in the second set and then served for it twice before going to a tiebreaker. Sherry got up 5-2 in the breaker, but Alayli won five straight points to clinch the win.
"I looked at the crowd, and they were supporting me so much," Alayli said. "This was a really big match, and I knew I had to win it."
Chadwick said the two seniors were special Sunday.
"You could see the determination in Cat's eyes," Chadwick said. "He wasn't going to be denied. With Karim basically saying ‘Give me the ball, Coach. I want to play' I knew he was ready. He had beaten his opponent earlier, so we felt there might be an edge there. But the bottom line is he comes in and wins a huge match. It was a bigtime win for the seniors today."
Freshman Erling Tveit won on a third-set supertiebreaker against Gator Vladimir Obradovic on court three to improve to 9-1 in the SEC and 11-1 at No. 3 singles. Florida claimed the No. 2 singles match for the final 5-2 score.
"This was a great weekend for us," said Gard of the Rebels' two wins over South Carolina Friday and Florida Sunday. "I am very happy that we played so well and that I played as well as I did today. It was a terrific day and a terrific moment for us. I'm glad that Karim finished his Senior Day with the same enthusiasm and victory that I was able to enjoy. Now we have a chance to win the SEC next week."
Ole Miss, which has now won 25 straight regular season home matches dating back to April 6, 2003, will face Mississippi State next Saturday at 1 p.m. at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre in Starkville in the regular season finale.
"We have almost a week to get ready for it," Chadwick said of the MSU match. "Make no mistake. This is a very, very good Mississippi State team. Our players know that, and there is a lot on the line. We'd like to encourage all our fans who can to come over and support us, because we want this overall SEC title."
Mississippi State, ranked 15th nationally in the latest poll and now 11-7 overall and 6-4 in SEC play, has lost three league matches in a row, including a 5-2 setback Sunday to 22nd-ranked South Carolina in Starkville. The Bulldogs had lost 7-0 to Florida at home on Friday.
Rebels beat Gators 5-2 in men's tennis
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