MOBILE, Ala. -- A young Azusa Pacific squad quickly learned how little the margin for error is in national tournament play, using a doubles tiebreaker win to help secure a 5-1 victory over No. 12-seeded Graceland (Iowa) Wednesday morning in a second-round match at the 2011 NAIA Men’s Tennis National Championship.
Juniors Whitman Hough and Ilja Ikonnikov reeled off 5 straight points to break a 2-2 deadlock in the tiebreaker, giving the No. 5-seeded Cougars an important 2-1 cushion after doubles play. Although Ikonnikov and junior Janosch Apelt won their singles matches with relative ease, it was another tiebreaker in the second set of sophomore Jochem Hoefnagels’s 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) win that finally clinched the win for Azusa Pacific.
“Today’s match showed that it’s never easy here,” Cougar head coach Mark Bohren said. “It’s always a battle (to advance), and Graceland is a good team who is very well coached, so I’m very happy about the win today.”
It was a good thing Hoefnagels rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the tiebreaker for 5 of the final 6 points, because Graceland had won the opening set in each of the 3 remaining singles matches to keep the Yellow Jackets’ upset bid alive. However, after falling behind by that 4-2 margin, Hoefnagels broke the next 3 service points in the tiebreaker before clinching the match on his own serve in a final 3-point burst.
With the win, Azusa Pacific extends its streak of NAIA quarterfinals appearances to 12 consecutive seasons, spanning all of the Cougars’ national tournament appearances since the NAIA switched from an individual tournament to a team dual-match format in 2000. The Cougars are now 16-6 overall, and their quarterfinal opponent is No. 4-seeded Oklahoma Christian, which bounced Concordia, 1 of the tournament’s 6 GSAC representatives, by a 5-0 score.
“I think getting through today will allow us to play a little bit more relaxed tomorrow and at least play to our ability,” Bohren said. “I was really proud of them, because I thought they played very well today, especially the guys who haven’t played here before. That can be a difficult situation for new players, with the weather and the atmosphere, so it was exciting to see them get the win today.”
The straight-set victories in singles play for Apelt and Hoefnagels helped make up for a surprising 9-7 doubles defeat for the pair, who are ranked No. 2 in the ITA’s NAIA national doubles rankings and fell to the No. 14-ranked Graceland pair of Remy Caffardo and Carlos Yanes. A 6-4, 6-0 win at No. 1 singles for Apelt returned the favor, giving the Cougars’ top singles player (ranked No. 10 in the NAIA) an upset win over Caffardo, who is ranked third nationally in NAIA singles. Ikonnikov was the first one finished in singles, posting a 6-2, 6-2 win at No. 6 over Yann Lironi, and Hoefnagels’ straight-sets win completed the win after Apelt’s runaway victory.
“The biggest thing today is we have a lot of guys who were playing for the first time out here in the national tournament, and this was really a team victory,” Bohren said. “Everybody won in some way, either singles or doubles.”
In the other 3 matches, freshman Frederik Wilkens had bounced back from a 6-2 opening-set loss with a 6-2 second set win at No. 5, while freshman Ben Eger was close to tying up his match at a set apiece with a 5-4 second-set lead after dropping a narrow 6-4 opening set at the No. 3 position. At No. 4, junior Whitman Hough dropped a tough opening-set tiebreaker and was trailing 5-2 when Hoefnagels clinched the match victory for Azusa Pacific.
Eger and Wilkens opened up an early lead in doubles for the Cougars with an 8-4 win, but Graceland tied the match at 1-1 with the 9-7 upset at the top doubles position. The advantage heading into singles play rested on a tiebreaker at No. 2 doubles, where Hough and Ikonnikov took their first lead of the set at 2-1 on Yassir El Ghazi double fault. Ikonnikov served an ace for a 3-2 lead, starting the final 5-point push that finished with a long rally for the match-clinching point.
Graceland, which defeated Huntington (Ind.) in Tuesday's first round, has its season ended by a GSAC team for the fourth consecutive year, and the Yellow Jackets finish the season with a 12-6 record.