“The moment you give up, is the moment you let someone else win.”
When Kobe Bryant said those words, he didn’t directly apply them to basketball because he knew they could go beyond the basketball court. They could apply to life or in Ball State’s case, the tennis court.
Saturday evening, in match one of a two-match series against Cleveland State (0-3, 0-0 Horizon), the Cardinals (3-1, 0-0 MAC) took those words to heart. They staged a comeback and won the last four singles matches of the night, defeating the Vikings 4-3.
“It was a great comeback win,” head coach Bill Richards said. “I’m really proud of our guys for just hanging in there, persevering and finding a way to get the win.”
The Cardinals had trouble getting on the scoreboard early. The doubles teams of senior Chris Adams and sophomore Vince Orlando and the team of juniors Thibault de Negri and Danilo Kovacevic both lost 6-3, giving the Vikings their first points of the weekend.
De Negri and Kovacevic then lost at No. 1 (1-6, 6-7) and No. 2 (3-6, 3-6) singles, respectively, in straight sets, giving Cleveland State a commanding 3-0 lead. All the Vikings needed to do was win one more match to clinch the victory while the Cardinals would have to win the remaining four points.
“We kind of put ourselves in a hole because we lost the doubles point,” Richards said. “We didn’t play quite as well in doubles as we did in our first match against Notre Dame. We had to win four singles matches, which is not an easy thing to do against a good team like Cleveland State.”
But then, the Cardinals began rallying back.
Sophomore Eli Herran got Ball State’s first win in straight sets (7-6, 6-0), cutting the Vikings lead to 3-1. Orlando (3-6, 6-3, 6-4) and freshman Sajin Smith (7-6, 5-7, 6-0) then won their matches in three sets, tying the match at three apiece.
“I have a lot of belief in our players,” Richards said, “but there's such a thing as looking at the scoreboard and seeing exactly where you are. It wasn't looking good. All you do is keep fighting, and our guys did that. We were slowly able to get the momentum neutralized and put ourselves in a position to win the match.”
The remaining point came down between Adams and Cleveland State freshman Maxime Mareschal-Hay at No. 3 singles. Adams won the first set 7-5 before dropping the second to Mareschal-Hay, forcing a decisive and tiebreaking third set.
It was neck-and-neck to the finish, but Adams ultimately closed the match. Winning 7-6, he sealed the Cardinals’ victory on night one.
“It was a competitive match,” Adams said. “My opponent,and I were pretty even, and I just kept competing hard and ended up playing it out.”
Sunday’s second match did not see either team gain as much of a big advantage as the day before. The Vikings were the first on the board by winning the doubles point once again. The teams were exactly the same as the previous night, with Herran and senior Bryce Bonin winning its match 6-4, followed by the teams of Orlando/Adams and de Negri/Kovacevic losing theirs by the same margin.
At singles, four of the matches were decided in three sets. The Cardinals got on the scoreboard right away, as Smith won his second match of the weekend at No. 5 singles (6-1, 6-2), tying the match at one apiece.
Kovacevic was the next to earn a point for the Cardinals, winning in straight sets (7-5, 7-5) and giving Ball State a 2-1 lead. However, the Vikings tied the match back up at two when de Negri lost his match (2-6, 7-5, 2-6). Both teams split the next two points, with Herran winning (7-5, 6-7, 6-2) and Orlando losing (5-7, 6-4, 6-7) in three sets apiece.
With both teams tied at three, No. 3 singles between Adams and Cleveland State’s Clark Bilinovich once again decided the match’s winning side.
Adams had to win from behind this time after losing the first set 7-6. He came back to win the second set by the same score — forcing a third set with the win or loss resting on his shoulders for the second consecutive day.
“Once I saw that it was gonna come down to my court, I told myself, ‘I'd been here before, I'd done it before,’ so I had a lot of confidence going into the end of that third set,” Adams said.
Without a winner coming from the third set — tied at six apiece — Adams and Bilinovich traded points in the decisive game. Adams ultimately came out on top and won 7-6.
“[Chris’ performance today] was actually even more amazing,” Richards said. “I didn't really know how much he’d have left for today. His singles match today lasted for three hours and fifteen minutes, and all of his sets were tiebreakers. His toughness, stamina and will to win is as good as any player I’ve ever coached. It doesn't happen very often in college tennis that the same guy wins the last match 7-6 in the third [set] two matches in a row.”
With the victories, the Cardinals improve to 3-1 — their best start since 2018. They return to Muncie to play their first home match of the season Friday against Xavier.