May 23, 2002
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Notre Dame seniors Javier Taborga (La Paz, Bolivia) and Casey Smith (Leawood, Kan.), the fifth-ranked doubles team in the nation, dropped a close 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 7-5 decision in the opening round of the NCAA Men’s Tennis Doubles Championship Thursday afternoon at the Texas A&M Tennis Center. The Irish pair fell to the 42nd-ranked tandem of Matthias Mathaes and Prakash Venkataraman of Rice.
The match came down to the 12th game of the final set with Smith serving at 5-6 to try to send the Irish into a tiebreaker. Venkataraman ran down what seemed to be a volley winner for the Irish and hit a running forehand to Smith, who dumped the volley into the net. The Irish evened the game score at 15-15 on a jumping overhead smash on the next point by Taborga.
Rice edged ahead again when Venkataraman returned into Taborga’s body and the Bolivian’s volley failed to clear the net. Venkataraman then gave his team double match point with a volley winner between the Irish competitors.
Serving at 15-40, Smith came up with two huge serves to save match points, registering an ace out wide on the first point and gaining another service winner on the following point when Mathaes couldn’t handle the wide serve.
But Rice rebounded with a crosscourt return winner from Venkataraman to give the Owls another match point. This time they converted when a barrage of volleys was capped by another winner down the middle by Venkataraman.
The game was the only time in nine service games by Smith that the Irish failed to hold serve and it was the only game either team had a break point in the set. In the match, both squads broke serve on two occasions.
Smith and Taborga finished the season at 31-13, marking the most doubles victories in a season for any pair under head coach Bob Bayliss. Both Irish seniors finished 32-13 individually in doubles, sharing the highest individual total of partnered wins in a season during the span. Taborga (77-46) and Smith (76-52) finished their careers listed fourth and sixth, respectively, on the list of career doubles wins in the Bayliss era and the former is just the second Irish player to earn three invitations to the NCAA Doubles Championship since the current format was adopted in 1977.
The Notre Dame seniors will have to wait until the final set of Omni Hotels Collegiate Tennis Rankings are released next week to see if they qualify for All-America honors. The top eight seeds in the NCAA Doubles Championship, along with the quarterfinalist teams in the tournament and the top 10 teams in the final set of rankings all are named doubles All-Americans. The Irish pair have been ranked in the top seven in each set of rankings since December and currently stand fifth, but will likely be hurt by a 1-2 record since the last set of rankings was released.
Each team registered a service break in the first set, which was determined in a tiebreaker. Mathaes sent a passing shot down the line for a winner on break point in the fifth game to take a 3-2 lead. Three games later, the Irish evened the score at 4-4 when Taborga fired a return winner crosscourt on break point.
The Owls won the first three points and jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the tiebreaker before the Irish rallied to tie it at 5-5. Venkataraman followed his serve to net and delivered a volley winner to give Rice a set point. Mathaes converted on it when he blasted a forehand return of a Smith serve past the Irish pair to capture the tiebreaker, 7-5.
Notre Dame notched the only service break of the second set, which proved to be enough to force a final frame. In the third game, Smith drove a swinging volley into the body of Venkataraman, who could not handle it, on break point to give the Irish a 2-1 advantage. The Owls had opportunities to break the Irish captain’s serve in the sixth game of the set, but Notre Dame fought through six deuces and saved three break points before holding serve. The Irish then held serve two more times to capture the set 6-4.
Mathaes and Venkataraman, the second-lowest-ranked team to earn an invitation to this year’s NCAA Doubles Championship, improved to 20-11 and advanced to Friday’s round of 16 to face either Georgia’s 18th-ranked team of Matias Boeker and Bo Hodge or San Diego State’s third-seeded squad of Oliver Maiberger and Ryan Redondo.
The loss for Smith/Taborga marked the third straight first-round exit for an Irish team in the NCAA Doubles Championship. Taborga and Aaron Talarico (Laguna Beach, Calif.) fell in the opening round of the 2001 and 2000 tournaments. The last Notre Dame team to win a match in the tournament was Brian Patterson and Jakub Pietrowski, who defeated a San Diego State team in straight sets before falling in the second round of the 1998 NCAA Doubles Championship.
The loss marked the end of the season for Notre Dame. The Irish finished 23-7 in team play and fell in the round of 16 of the NCAA team championship to No. 3 Illinois. Notre Dame loses seven seniors to graduation, including six letterwinners. Six of the team’s top nine players were seniors this season, including each of the top three singles players and the members of both of its top two doubles teams. The Irish do have a promising class of freshman who will join the squad in the fall.