Lyn Yee Choo didn’t double her pleasure and tie an East Tennessee State women’s tennis record Saturday, but bounced back for an impressive singles victory in the Lady Bucs’ Atlantic Sun semifinal win against Stetson at the ETSU Tennis Complex.
Top-seeded East Tennessee State (14-5) will play No. 2 seed North Florida today at 10 a.m. in the championship. North Florida (15-4), which beat the Lady Bucs in last year’s final, defeated USC Upstate 4-0 in Saturday’s second semifinal.
ETSU and North Florida will also play for the men’s title today at 1 p.m. The second-seeded Bucs (12-6) defeated Lipscomb 4-1 in Saturday’s semifinal nightcap. Top-seeded North Florida (15-7), which defeated ETSU 4-3 in Johnson City on March 22, beat No. 4 Florida Gulf Coast 4-0 in the other semifinal.
Things started slowly for Choo on a cold, windy morning. Choo, a red-shirt freshman from Malaysia, and Anna Gerbasi are ranked No. 63 in doubles, but lost for the first time in 13 sets. Jen Miller and Diana Bukajeva defeated them, 8-3.
But Choo shrugged it off and needed only an hour to defeat Sara Lazarevic, 6-3, 6-3, at No. 2 singles. She improved to 31-7 overall on the season (18-1 in singles), and can tie or break Sandie Knight’s season wins record (32) today.
“I never thought about breaking a record,” Choo said. “After we played Virginia (April 7), that’s when I found out I was close to it. I’m trying to break it, but there’s not much matches left.”
The 5-foot-3 Choo is six inches shorter than Lazarevic and her first serve lacked much of Lazrevic’s velocity. But the mobile baseline player moved her big-hitting opponent around with crisp, precisely placed groundstrokes.
“She can manage speed,” ETSU coach Yaser Zaatini said. “She hits the ball pretty flat, hits through the court, which many girls can’t do. She moves very well. She’s deceivingly fast. She sees the court better just because she’s able to place the ball where she wants, and that’s a huge advantage.”
Choo, who teammates call Tessie, began the season playing in the fourth slot. She also played at No. 3.
“Tessie’s been amazing for us this year,” ETSU assistant Travis Sandlant said. “I think her record speaks for itself. We expected a lot from her when we recruited her and she’s living up the expectations, which is great.
“She was winning quite comfortably at the start of the year and that’s why she’s playing two at the moment. As a freshman, that’s a great feat. And to still be winning in that position just shows how talented she is.”
ETSU No. 1 singles player Antonia Kovolou clinched ETSU’s victory by rallying from a 5-3 deficit in the final set to beat hard-hitting, hot-headed Andrea Crespo, 6-1, 2-6, 7-5.
Crespo was playing well and in a rhythm when she got within a game of victory, but Kovolou gutted out some long rallies to fluster Crespo and muster one final momentum swing. Kovolou also rallied for a doubles win with Salma Dahbi. They trailed 5-4 in their 8-5 victory, which clinched the point.
“Antonia’s an unbelievable player,” Sandlant said. “I mean, she’s very underrated. She deserves a lot of credit ... because she’s the backbone. She’s got some ranked wins.”
Kovolou, a native of Larisa, Greece, is a first-year senior transfer from Stephen F. Austin.
“I’m proud of the leadership of Antonia,” Zaatini said. “Antonia’s been at No. 1 the whole time. The pressure of playing No. 1 carries a lot of weight.
“She does things right. She shows up for practice. She works hard. She does well in school – all of our girls do. But to step up and be the leader as a senior having
transferred from another program, it shows a lot of guts.”
Gerbasi won the other singles match, defeating Cable, 6-4, 6-1. ETSU juniors Giulia Andreazza and Sofia Espana defeated Lazarevic and MayaBlue Stauffer-MacDowell, 8-5, in doubles.
The Hatters had their moments. The match was more competitive than the final score suggests. Zaatini and Sandlant were watching the scoreboard as matches tightened while taking some 90 minutes to conclude after Choo had finished.
“It was tough,” Zaatini said. “I knew how tight it was at No. 6. We let the second set go at five and we were barely holding serve at three. So I understood the match was complicated. ... I’m proud of the girls to give ourselves a position to win the conference outright and get into the finals and give ourselves a chance.”
Zaatini least expected Kovolou to decide the match after she got in the late hole.
“I just wanted somebody to finish the match,” Choo said. “It was good to see her come back. The last time they played the same thing happened.”
ETSU beat North Florida 4-0 on March 22, but the match was moved indoors to Bristol, where ETSU is accustomed to practicing.
“I’m not expecting a 4-0 tomorrow,” Sandlant said. “They’re a great team and they’re coached well.”
Upstate didn’t win a set against North Florida in doubles or singles. Marina Cunningham (6-2, 6-2), Taylor Hollander (6-1, 6-2) and Melanie Aguirre (6-0, 6-3) quickly clinched the match with singles victories at Nos. 3-5, respectively.
For the ETSU men, Rogerio Ribeiro had the quickest match against Lipscomb, beating David Salazar 6-0, 6-0 at No. 2 singles. Roger Ordeig provided the clinching point, beating Lipscomb’s Miguel Cortez 6-3, 6-1 at No. 5 to conclude the match at 11 p.m.
Lipscomb fought spiritedly until the end, but only seemed to be delaying the inevitable for at least an hour. Zaatini would’ve been pleased had the Bucs finished off the Bison more efficiently.
“There’s a lot of better tennis to be played,” Zaatini said, “and if we don’t manage to pull it off, tomorrow’s gonna be a long day for us – or short.”
Part of the problem was at least one Buccaneer player was literally limping down the stretch. Juan Ramirez (No. 3 singles) apparently pulled a hamstring in the first set. His match was delayed a few minutes while a trainer tended to him.
Ramirez appeared worse for wear. After winning the first set, he lost the second set and trailed 3-2 in the third when the Bucs clinched.
“I think it’s a hamstring pull, which is pretty significant, you know,” Zaatini said. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
ETSU’s Jesus Bandres led Lipscomb’s Oliver Strecker in an entertaining matchup at No. 1 (6-3, 5-5) when the match ended. Strecker sent one backward return between his legs from beyond the baseline. Bandres made several impressive passing shots to conclude crowd-pleasing points.
It looked like Bandres might clinch the match. After falling behind 3-0 in the second set, he rallied to take a 5-4 lead that was secured with an overhand slam to the deep left corner that he followed with a some “Si senor” swagger. He smashed several cross-court backhanded winners when there were thin margins for error.
Such play will have to be contagious if the Bucs are to win a seventh straight title.
“North Florida took the doubles pretty easy (in the regular season match),” Zaatini said, “and they beat us easy at one and three. We’ll have to play well.”
ETSU’s new tennis facility is still awaiting a fieldhouse, but is already striking. The large scoreboard, terraced vantage points from one sideline and baseline and even the occasional CSX locomotive lumbering past across the street are all part of an exceptional ambience.
“It’s beautiful,” Zaatini said. “I’m extremely proud. It’s a privilege and an honor that the program is considered this highly for us to be blessed with a facility of this magnitude.”