The Virginia men's tennis team made a statement against No. 12 Kentucky Saturday.
In front of 702 fans at the Boar's Head Sports Club, senior Michael Shabaz stepped into a return on his own match point against junior Eric Quigley - Kentucky's No. 1 singles player and the No. 2-ranked player in the country - and ripped the ball up the line for a winner. The point secured a 6-2, 7-5 victory for Shabaz and gave Virginia the decisive fourth point on its way to a resounding 7-0 sweep of a team that beat the Cavaliers, 4-3, last season - their only regular-season defeat since 2007.
"There were some quotes in the paper, I guess they said [their win] wasn't a fluke last year," Shabaz said after the match. "And to beat them 7-0 is a pretty convincing statement. As a team, it can't get any better than that."
The Cavaliers also opened ACC play with a 7-0 win against No. 71 Maryland (3-1) Friday evening. Virginia (8-0) has given up just two points to opposing teams so far this season, blanking six opponents in total.
Saturday evening, the three doubles pairings started strongly against a Kentucky team that swept Virginia in doubles during its victory last season. Junior Drew Courtney and Shabaz earned the first victory, 8-6, against Quigley and senior Brad Cox. Freshman Alex Domijan and sophomore Jarmere Jenkins closed out their match, 8-3, just after senior Sanam Singh, paired with junior Steven Eelkman Rooda, sealed their doubles point with an ace on ad-in.
"I was really pleased with the way we came out and executed in doubles," Virginia coach Brian Boland said. "We put some time into that over the week and in practices, and I thought that really paid off. It helped us carrying into singles."
The night's most eagerly anticipated match, between Shabaz and Quigley, lived up to its billing as a contest between two hard-hitting baseliners. Points were brief, and neither player hesitated to look for angles or fire balls into the open court.
Serving at 1-2 in the first set, Quigley opened with a drop shot winner but double faulted twice in a row to fall behind, 15-30. The Virginia fans didn't clap after Quigley's mistakes, but erupted once Shabaz earned the break three points later. Shabaz saw another break opportunity with Quigley serving at 2-5. During the second deuce point, Shabaz ripped into Quigley's serve to earn a set point, after which Quigley missed his backhand to lose the first set, 6-2.
At 1-1 in the second set, Shabaz began to show signs of slowing down. Serving at 30-all, his serve struck the net cord and then bounced softly into the middle of the box. Quigley took it as an approach shot and came into net. Shabaz tried for the pass, but barely nudged it wide to fall behind break point. Shabaz missed his first serve, and Quigley stepped into his weaker second to win the point and earn the early break.
After Quigley held serve in the next game relatively easily, Shabaz called the trainer to tend to the top part of his foot. Shabaz took an injury timeout, and came back from the brief pause with renewed energy.
"The top of my left foot was bothering me, and I knew I had to slow the match down," Shabaz said. "He was getting hot on the baseline. He was really feeding off my pace, and I was able to regroup, kind of get my serve popping again, kind of hit my shots when I had the opportunity to because he was a very offensive player, and he didn't give me that many strikes."
Shabaz held his next service game at love, then took his chances with Quigley serving at 3-2. He angled a forehand return winner during the first point of that game, and at 30-15, the two traded deep, fast-paced groundstrokes, a point typical of the match's longer rallies. Shabaz bullied Quigley wide into the corner with heavy topspin, and Quigley attempted to pull the ball back crosscourt, but found the net instead. Shabaz hit a strong return later at deuce, and then took advantage of a Quigley second serve to gain control of the point and recapture the break.
The match remained on-serve, with Shabaz still nursing an injured foot, until Quigley's service game at 5-6. At 15-15, Shabaz ripped a forehand return crosscourt, then saw match point at 30-40 after Quigley netted an easy forehand. The fans began to clap in unison, speeding up as they do before every match point, and tapering off just as Quigley began his final toss of the night. Shabaz watched the ball strike Quigley's racket and, having seen the same serve just three points earlier, ended the match with a booming forehand return winner. Fans gave Shabaz a standing ovation as he secured the decisive fourth victory.
Shabaz "wasn't actually feeling that well, and he really toughed it out, which I think is a great thing physically," Boland said. "He sometimes allows something that nags him to bother him, and he did an excellent job compartmentalizing his thoughts and controlling what he could. Eric's a great player, Michael has tremendous respect for Eric, but I think Michael was a little too much for Eric tonight."
Domijan, Jenkins and freshman Justin Shane each earned straight-set victories, but Courtney and Singh dropped the first set in their respective matches. Courtney came from behind to win the second and third, and Singh did the same, earning a break early on in the third set with a strong return against Kentucky's serve-and-volleying Brad Cox. Singh went on to win the set, 6-4, to close out the match.
"We were pushed in singles," Boland said. "It was something that was great, that I thought we needed. We haven't been pushed in singles as much as I would have liked this early in the season."
The match against Kentucky was more hotly contested than the previous night's conference opener against Maryland. Courtney, at No. 5 singles, needed a tiebreaker in the second set to dispatch Terrapin sophomore Jesse Kiuru, but the rest of the Cavaliers earned easy straight-set wins to capture their first conference victory of the season.
Virginia continues its conference schedule against No. 28 Virginia Tech Friday night at the Boar's Head Sports Club to conclude its nine-match season-opening homestand. The Cavaliers will face No. 74 Boston College on the road Sunday before heading to Seattle, Washington, the next weekend for the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, which the Cavaliers have won each of the past three seasons.