A year ago, I had the pleasure of watching a very exciting college tennis match between Virginia sophomore Brian Vahaly, the No. 17 singles player in the country, and No. 16 Daniel Andersson of VCU. In an easy straight set win, Vahaly knocked off Andersson, 6-3, 6-3.
While Vahaly clearly had the match in hand, its excitement and energy came from the intensity both players showed. Though the Cavaliers lost the team competition, 4-3, it was a moral victory for Virginia and a huge win for Vahaly, who beat Andersson for the third time.
This season's meeting was supposed to be even more competitive and exciting, as both players ranked in the top five. Vahaly, now the No. 4 player in the country, was looking forward to meeting his in-state nemesis for the fourth time Thursday in Richmond. And Andersson, the nation's top-ranked college player, seemed equally enthused about the rematch despite a recurring back injury.
Andersson was undergoing ultrasound treatment daily, but according to Vahaly, it was a can't-miss match for the Rams' No. 1 player.
"I would be surprised to see him sit out this match," Vahaly said before the match last week. "It is too big of a rivalry between us, and I think he wants one more crack at me."
He was wrong. Not only did Andersson not face Vahaly, but he proved himself undeserving of his No. 1 billing.
Andersson didn't sit out the match Thursday, but what he did do baffles me more than sitting ever could. Instead of facing Vahaly, Andersson moved to the No. 2 singles spot and knocked off Huntley Montgomery in an easy match, 6-2, 6-1.
I can understand a player sitting out due to severe injury, but I can't understand why a player, especially one ranked so highly, would choose to compete against an easier opponent when he could have faced one of his own caliber.
VCU's decision cheated the fans out of watching top-notch tennis between two equally talented competitors. A Vahaly-Andersson rematch would have been as exciting and enjoyable as college tennis matches get.
After mulling over the situation some more, I thought beyond the fans and began to question Andersson as an athlete. While it is by all means Andersson's prerogative to move to a lower seed, his decision makes him look like he was afraid of playing Vahaly. It appears his record and ranking were a lot more important to him than the game of tennis.
When I think of a No. 1 in any sport, I think of a player or team that got that ranking through playing the best and beating the best. You shouldn't get to be No. 1 by facing lower competition when you had the opportunity to challenge someone on your level.
What if Andersson played Vahaly Thursday? He might have been defeated for the fourth time and lost his No. 1 ranking in the process.
On the other hand, Andersson could have won the match, solidifying his status as college tennis' elite athlete. It was a chance worth taking.
By opting against facing Vahaly, Andersson signaled to the tennis community that preserving his precious ranking was his priority. That's not what makes a top tennis player. He still may hold the No. 1 ranking in college men's tennis, but he sure didn't deserve it Thursday against Virginia.