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Following rare loss, Boland eyes stability

Virginia toys with doubles lineup after first regular season defeat since 2006

As he strolled to the court to watch the No. 2 men's tennis team in the country begin practice yesterday night, coach Brian Boland walked with the weight of expectations clinging firmly to his shoulders.

There was no evidence in his demeanor - he carried himself with the steady composure of a veteran coach: face calm and eyes set on his players. But he couldn't help but grin when asked how he was holding up.

"I'm surviving."

Though a close loss to a highly-ranked opponent early in the season isn't necessarily cause for concern, Boland's team hadn't experienced the sting of a regular season defeat for more than two years.\nThen it traveled to Lexington, Kentucky last weekend to take on the No. 14 Wildcats. And the unimaginable occurred.

With the two teams knotted at 3, the Cavaliers' fate rested on the racket of senior Lee Singer. And for the first time in 63 regular season matches, the critical shot sailed out of bounds.

"Once the backhand went wide on the last point, we were kind of in shock for about 10, 15 seconds," junior Michael Shabaz said. "We had never really felt that."

Shabaz, a 2009 NCAA doubles champion, had been playing some of his best tennis. His team had won three straight matches during the previous week-and-a-half, including two on the road against No. 15 Illinois and No. 30 Notre Dame. Shabaz was on top of his game, winning each singles match in straight sets, a feat which earned him ACC Player of the Week honors.

But the seeds for failure were well-ingrained in Virginia's unstable doubles dynamic.

Though Shabaz began the season playing alongside freshman phenom Jarmere Jenkins, Boland switched around the teams against Illinois and paired Shabaz with fellow junior Sanam Singh. That tandem lost its first match together, however, to Illinois' top pair by a score of 8-5.

During the following match, Jenkins, then paired with senior Houston Barrick, lost to Notre Dame's Niall Fitzgerald and Stephen Havens in the No. 2 slot.

Then everything fell apart.

"Coach thought that it would be better if Houston and Jarmere played together, so [Michael and I] just went with it," Singh said. "It was OK, and then [Boland] thought, 'Let's go back to it,' 'cause maybe he thought it didn't work. And then we went back to it, and that didn't work too well."

No doubles combination was effective against Kentucky, as the Wildcats swept all three matches. Boland tried pairing Singh with Barrick, who played together in the No. 1 slot for the majority of the 2008-09 campaign, but they fell to the No. 9-ranked team of Eric Quigley and Brad Cox. Shabaz and Jenkins failed to revitalize their early season chemistry. Sophomore Drew Courtney and Singer, who played together last season, also stumbled. It was an astonishing turn of events for a team that only had dropped the doubles points twice during the regular season just one year ago.

"At the end of the day, it's such a big deal for us 'cause since I've gone here and Michael's gone here, we have not lost a regular season match. We were actually talking about that - when we lost that last point, 3-all, and Lee lost that last point, we didn't know how to react," Singh said. "It's just a weird feeling, and coach obviously felt the same, 'cause, you know, people don't expect us to lose a regular season match. He's explained to us that at the end of the day, it's one match. Obviously at Virginia it's a much bigger deal - people are gonna' talk."

But Boland's consolation came with a jolt to the Cavaliers' system. Shabaz said Boland has decided to experiment with three entirely different doubles teams for the upcoming ITA National Indoors Tournament. Shabaz will pair with Courtney, Barrick with Jenkins and Singh with Singer.

"We're not clicking like I think we should be," Boland said. "We're putting in a lot of good time and effort, and it's not happening, so I had to mix it up for the good of the chemistry, and hopefully it pays off."

Shabaz said he hopes this will be this last switch in the doubles pairings, adding that the changes mainly hinge on the players' different styles. Both Courtney and Shabaz rely on a big serve, while some of the others play a more "unorthodox" style, Shabaz said.

The new pairing is music to the junior's ears, as the powerful serve of his new 6-foot-5 partner may help to rekindle the magic Shabaz shared with former Cavalier giant Dominic Inglot during their run to the doubles title last year.

Boland certainly thinks so.

"You learn the most about your players and about people in difficult situations," the coach said. "Hopefully we come out of this, and I can learn some things that I believe are true about my players and their character, and their ability to respond to adversity. I'm confident that we'll come out of this better than we went into it"

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