Showing up in the clutch: Men’s tennis defeats William & Mary after a last-set victory by the Flames

Fresh off a dominant win against Richmond, the No. 57 Liberty University men’s tennis team looked to continue its winning streak against No. 68 William & Mary on its home court. Fans piled into the stands and cheered on the Flames in the opening doubles, and those same stands erupted as the Flames came back to win against William & Mary 4-3.

Konstantinos Raptis and Bill Duo secured the first doubles win 6-2 for the Tribe against Liberty’s pairing of seniors Rafael Marques Da Silva and Thando Longwe-Smit. The Flames countered with senior Deji Thomas-Smith and freshman Romeo Hadzimehmedovic putting Liberty back in contention with a hard-fought 7-5 victory.

However, William & Mary came away with the overall doubles win after Satchel Benn and Oliver Hague edged out Liberty sophomore Luis Felipe Miguel and freshman Matija Samardzic in a 7-5 victory. The Flames were now on their back feet going into singles, and it would be a fight to the finish if they wanted to surpass the Tribe and claim the victory.

“We work a lot on our doubles,” Flames Head Coach Derek Schwandt said. “However, what we focus on even more than that is the attitude of responding throughout the doubles point and the whole singles matches. You’ve got to have an attitude of responding. We want to keep building on our team — the attitude and mindset of responding.” 

The Flames were bested by the Tribe in doubles, winning one of the three sets | Photo by Noah Seidlitz

After a short break, the Flames split up for singles. Six courts all competed at once, playing two sets each and a third tiebreaker if needed. Da Silva was the first to put a point on the board for Liberty with a dominating 6-0, 6-1 win. The Tribe followed suit as Benn would beat Miguel in close 7-5, 7-5 sets. Liberty tied the score again when redshirt freshman Chase Robinson responded with a 6-2, 7-5 win. William & Mary then forced Liberty into a must-win situation as freshman Rodrigo Santiago Arraez suffered the first singles loss of his collegiate career at the hands of Tribe sophomore Albert Hansen at 6-4, 6-4. 

With two courts left playing, it was up to Longwe-Smit and Thomas-Smith to secure the final 2 points and win the match. If one of the Flames lost their set, William & Mary would take home the victory. Longwe-Smit lost a tough first set to Hague but came back in a tight 7-6 second set. In the tiebreaker set, Longwe-Smit would take the win in dominating fashion in a 6-1 set, tying the score for the Flames to the delight of the fans. 

Deji Thomas-Smith won the final singles set for the Flames to claim the match win | Photo by Noah Seidlitz

All pressure fell on Thomas-Smith. The British player faced off against William & Mary’s Raptis. In the first set, Thomas-Smith returned every stroke Raptis sent his way. The two rallied back and forth, ultimately leading to Thomas-Smith winning with a score of 6-2 in the first set. The fans roared as the players took a seat before the next set. Frustrated, Raptis poured on the power in the second set. He returned each stroke at Thomas-Smith with power, making him run all over the back of the court. Raptis mixed his strokes up with a few drop shots, which forced Thomas-Smith to dash toward the net to prevent Raptis from scoring. Raptis took advantage of the scrambling Flame and won the second set with a score of 7-5. 

The pressure was high as the players stepped onto the court for the last time in a tiebreaker set. The two battled hard, with Raptis firing returns left and right, but Thomas-Smith was undeterred. He timed his returns correctly and sent them back to Raptis. Thomas-Smith took the lead with a score of 6-5. Both players at this point were exhausted. Raptis was much slower on his returns, which Thomas-Smith capitalized on. Each player used the last bit of his energy to stay in the fight, but Thomas-Smith took the victory when he sent a return out of Raptis’ reach to the back left of the court to win 7-5. The stands erupted as the Flames came back and won against William & Mary with a final score of 4-3. 

“I was feeling the physicality of it,” Thomas-Smith said. “What really kept me going was the team on my side. They were firing me up — all the fans as well. I could feel the passion and heart. That’s what got me through.”

The Flames travel next to Boca Raton, Florida, to face off against FAU March 27 at 5 p.m., followed by South Florida two days later.

Warden is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion

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