By Timothy Farrell
University Athletic Association
(Editor’s note: This is the final part of a four part series. Part 1 looked at how the four Asian American standouts ended up at the University of Chicago together. Part 2 examined how their arrival changed the culture of the team. Part 3 highlighted their instant success. )
With the unprecedented accomplishments of their freshman campaign, the Class of 2018 University of Chicago men’s tennis recruits knew they would face huge expectations in their sophomore season.
Nick Chua described the 2015-16 season as one of “inflated expectations with inversely bad results.”
“We were already ranked so high early in the season and with more strong recruits, we expected to do even better than we did before,” Peter Leung explained. “But unfortunately, we had several sloppy performances.”
2015-16 Regular Season and UAA Championship
Things started very strongly again in the second season with Chua again winning the ITA Division III Central Region singles title and pulling off a rare sweep by teaming with David Liu for the doubles championship.
The Maroons opened the 2016 portion of the season with five wins, including a win over NCAA Division I Chicago State University and three over ranked Division III opponents, heading into the ITA Division III Men’s Team Indoor National Championship.
Chicago recorded its first win in program history at ITA indoors with a 6-3 win over eighth-ranked Trinity University. The Maroons followed with an impressive 7-2 victory over host and 14th-ranked Case Western Reserve University to move into the school’s first ITA final. In spite of a loss to fifth-ranked Emory University in the final, the Maroons were rolling and ranked sixth in the nation.
A five-match winning streak, all over ranked opponents followed, but cracks started to show on the team’s spring break trip to California. In the opening match of the trip, the now fourth-ranked Maroons struggled in a 5-4 win over 25th-ranked Stevens Institute of Technology and, in a rare result, split the six singles matches.
The trip ended with what was considered a showdown match with second-ranked Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges, but the Maroons were never in the match. The Stags swept doubles and then took four of six singles matches in a 7-2 win with only Liu (No. 3) and Luke Tsai (No. 6) earning singles wins for Chicago.
The team struggled again in its next match two weeks later, dropping a 5-4 decision to the now sixth-ranked Spartans, who they had defeated handily earlier in the season. Things seemed to be back on track two days later when the Maroons posted a convincing 8-1 win over 13th-ranked Washington University and earned the second seed for the UAA Men’s Tennis Championship.
After a 9-0 quarterfinal win over University of Rochester, the Maroons faced the Bears again with a trip to the UAA final on the line. Chua and Liu squeaked out a 9-8 (10-8) win to give the Maroons their only point in doubles, but the Maroons dropped three of five completed singles matches with Tsai being the only sophomore to join junior Sven Kranz in garnering a singles point.
The following day in the third-place match, Chicago jumped out to a 2-1 lead on eighth-ranked Carnegie Mellon University after doubles, but once again only got singles victories from Tsai and Kranz to suffer its fourth loss in their last seven matches.
“We already weren’t playing well going into UAA’s and there is just so much pressure in that tournament,” Chua said. He had a paper due the day of the third-place match and was also coming down with the flu, which would keep him down for a few days after the tournament so it was a rough weekend for him. “We weren’t sure we would make the NCAA tournament. We still had belief, but no one was really playing well. No one felt as confident in singles as they had before.”
“UAA’s was a major disappointment,” said Tee. We had just beaten WashU for the first time in six years. I think we got a little cocky. I had a sense it wasn’t going to be a good tournament for us.”
“Tell The Truth Tuesday”
On the Tuesday after the disappointing performance at the UAA championship, Tee held a “Tell the Truth” meeting for an hour.
“We had very honest discussions about where all of us could do better, including me,” he stated. “We talked about what is important in life and on this team. (Senior) Gordon (Zhang) made an incredible speech about how much he loved being part of the team in spite of very little playing time and that he wished the younger players would appreciate it more.”
“I thought the talk was useful in the sense that it helped everyone on the team realize that we could be more honest with each other,” Chua said. “I know the biggest kick for us was to improve after the losses at UAAs.”
Tee admits practices were very hard in the time leading up to the NCAA bid announcement. “It was the toughest two weeks of the season,” he said. “We practiced hard and our sense of urgency was now greater.”
Return to Final Four
The Maroons earned a bid to the NCAA Division III Men’s Tennis Championship and earned a pair of home wins to return to the national quarterfinals for the second consecutive season. After a 5-0 win over Carthage College, Chicago advanced past a familiar foe in Gustavus Adolphus College. Dropping two of three doubles matches, the Maroons won four singles matches (and led in the two unfinished matches) to set up a rematch with C-M-S.
“We knew we needed to be confident and bring a different mentality than when we played them on their court,” senior Sven Kranz said. “It felt good to win the match, but it didn’t feel the same as the year before against Amherst.”
The Maroons again fell behind 2-1 after doubles, but won four points in singles. Straight-set victories from Kranz (No. 3), freshman Charlie Pei (No. 4), and Leung (No. 6) brought the team one point from clinching. Liu posted a tough 6-4, 6-4 win at No. 2 singles to send Chicago back to the Final Four, knocking off the defending NCAA champions for the second year in a row.
Although the 2016 semifinal match against Middlebury College was much closer than the 2015 NCAA meeting, the Maroons fell 5-2. The reaction to reaching the Final Four again was profoundly different than the year before.
“We were just so glad to make the Final Four the first time,” Chua said. “We were happy because everyone around us was happy. Now we were older and had been there. We just wanted the championship.”
“We had new, higher expectations for our team after the first Final Four,” Tsai commented. “Even though our win over C-M-S was something to be very proud of, losing to Middlebury at the same stage was tough. Then seeing Bowdoin become the surprise champion made us feel that we were so close.”
Before the fall season began, the team took a trip to Europe, including the freshmen.
“Everyone was really excited at first and then people seemed like they didn’t want to go,” Tee remarked. “Some people really wanted to go and others thought it may be lame. Once we got there, everything changed. It was all about appreciating the culture and the experience.”
The men’s and women’s teams were originally scheduled to begin the trip in Paris, but a terrorist attack in Nice on July 14, changed the plans. The teams flew into Barcelona, where they spent most of the trip, and also went to the Netherlands and Belgium with a day trip to Germany.
“The Europe trip was an amazing life experience that our team will always remember,” Tsai said. “We got to see a lot of new places and try new things, which was great. I also really liked playing on the red clay and playing against some of the club teams. I think the team obviously benefits from the close bonding we had, especially with our new freshmen.”
“I honestly believed that the trip wouldn’t be that fun because most school trips are too organized to allow freedom but the trip exceeded all expectations,” Chua commented. “I thought that we all got a lot closer as a team and it was a great way to get the freshmen integrated into the team. It was such a great experience and I just wish we could do it again.”
“It was a fantastic trip and we were very lucky to go on it,” David Liu said. “It was a great bonding experience.”
“Being able to include the full team was critical to the Europe trip,” Tee added. “We had a great time. A trip like that takes the place of three months of team bonding.”
Another Strong Start
The 2016-17 season began much like the previous season with dominant performances at the Fall ITA Central Region Championship. At one point, the Maroons were a combined 33-0 in singles at the tournament.
This time, it was David Liu who ran the table and won the Central Region title, defeating Leung in the final. The senior-freshman combo of Max Hawkins and Tyler Raclin captured the regional doubles title.
“Some people were concerned about our team not having enough practice time for ITAs, but in the end, ITAs went well for us and I think part of it can be attributed to the team being fresh and mentally prepared for the challenge after coming back from Europe,” Tsai commented.
“We have high expectations again this year. We have another great recruiting class without many lost upperclassmen,” Leung said. ‘We have learned our lesson from the previous year.”
“This year as a team, we have to approach everything match by match,” Kranz said. “We need to keep getting better every day.”
“Since we weren’t able to meet our goal of winning the NCAA title last year, it means this season we are working even harder to push ourselves to become stronger,” Tsai said. “I like the high expectations for the team because it motivates us to train, get better, and never settle.”
One thing Tee is sure of is that his team will play as one. “We have a team that plays as a team,” he remarked. “We really enjoy being around one another and we want to share the success.”
Chua echoes the team concept. “If I am playing six (singles) because there are five better players than me, that is great for the team,” he said. “We don’t really care where we are playing, we just want to win. If I am starting, put me in whatever spot you want and I will play to win.”
Perhaps nothing speaks to Chua’s team mindset more than this past weekend’s ITA Division III Men’s Team Indoor National Championship. The Maroons defeated top-10 opponents Pomona-Pitzer Colleges and UAA rival Washington University by identical 7-2 scores to return to the title match. In the championship rematch against Emory University, Chua played a strong match in defeating the red-hot Jonathan Jemison, but was overcome by emotion after the final point because the team lost to the Eagles.