The No. 6 Vols trailed No. 3 Baylor by a point with Shunsuke Mitsui and No. 3 Adam Walton both locked in tight battles in their third sets. Walton went on to clinch the third set in his 3-6, 6-1, 7-5 win, putting Tennessee’s fate in freshman Shunsuke Mitsui’s hands. Despite his youth, he lead the Vols in clinches entering the quarterfinals.
The freshman once again proved that not a single moment is too big for him, sending the Vols to the NCAA semifinals for the second year in a row with his 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 win. The Vols got clutch wins out of their most seasoned vet and budding but young star.
“What he (Mitsui) doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” head coach Chris Woodruff said. “He is young, and he has stepped up big all year. When he came here, I’m not fully certain he really knew what the NCAA and the magnitude of what we are trying to achieve here was. The effort he showed yesterday and the freedom he showed once he got the lead was quite spectacular.”
“I think it just boils down to the fact that he has the ability to stay loose and I could tell in doubles that he was ready to go. He has been able to stay loose all year because what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Tennessee (26-7) fell to Baylor (29-4) in last year’s NCAA Tournament in the semifinals. This year, the Vols got their revenge on all fronts, defeating the Bears in the ITA National Championships earlier this season as well as ending their season on Thursday.
“We don’t really think of it as revenge,” Woodruff said. “It is nice to meet them and we preferred to focus on how tough the match was going to be. There is a healthy respect both ways, but if I really think about it, it’s just nice to still be playing.”
The Vols kicked this off with a doubles point win, coming from courts two and three. On court one, No. 13 Pat Harper and Walton could not recover from a slow start against No. 3 Finn Bass and Sven Lah, losing 6-1.
No. 21 Emile Hudd and Mitsui followed by taking court two convincingly over No. 9 Juampi Mazzuchi and Matias Soto 6-1. Johannus Monday and Mark Wallner finished the job in doubles against Adrian Boitan and Tadeas Paroulek, using a late break in the seventh game to win 6-4.
In singles play, the Vols dropped four of six first sets, needing a huge momentum boost to bring them back. Harper and Angel Diaz both fell early in straight sets, putting the Vols at a 1-2 deficit.
The boost came from No. 74 Emile Hudd, who won his first set tiebreak and cruised in the second set in a 7-6(3), 6-3 win over No. 73 Sven Lah. Hudd provided the momentum shift for the second time this tournament. Against Duke, the Vols dropped doubles, but his 6-1, 6-1 victory turned the tide heavily in the Vols favor.
“He’s been a work in progress since he’s come here,” Woodruff said. “When you look at his record at Oklahoma State, he was about .500. Since he’s come here, he is significantly above .500 and the knock was that he couldn’t win the big one and fell apart under pressure.”
“What he’s done this year has been nothing short of exceptional. He’s come up big in pretty much every match. He’s had a few where he’s lost his way but he was instrumental in national indoors earlier in Seattle where we made the final. He was instrumental yesterday and matches at home like Florida State.”
No. 10 Monday fell in three sets after winning his first, but Walton went on to take his second set and match over No. 5 Boitan. He trailed by a break at 3-5 in the third set but rallied back to take the final four games of the set.
“I try to not get too caught up in the moment,” Walton said. “I’ve been in many of these situations over the years. I was really focused on what I had to do. I actually had a deuce point at 3-3 to break on his serve that I lost. I went serving at 3-4 and played a pretty loose game to get broken.”
“The wind was pretty heavy on his side, so I knew I could always break him serving into the wind. I played a very good game to break him back and I felt like he was beginning to tire out, and I just used that and my experience and the crowd to get over the line.”
Mitsui used the momentum to bring himself back from 5-6 to force and win the tiebreak over Bass leading to his eventual clinching win on court four. Mitsui leads the team in clinches this season with eight.
“I had no doubt in Mitsui,” Walton said. “I always knew that if I could win, he was probably going to pull it out. I was just trying to fight for every point and I managed to get us there.”
The Vols will face No. 7 Virginia in the semifinals, who upset No. 2 Florida late on Thursday. First serve is scheduled for 2 p.m. EST in Champaign, Illinois.