The last matches of the Middlebury Invitational men’s tennis tournament concluded Sunday, Sept. 16, although the tournament is not technically over. The two finalists in “A” bracket singles play, Rob Crampton and Matt Bettles, both visiting from Bates, will play for the title this weekend back at their home courts.
Still, as the Proctor courts emptied lateÂ Sunday afternoon, the Middlebury men’s tennis program left galvanized by the weekend’s matches, and by a glimpse at the competition that the season holds in store.
“Bates looked extremely strong, as did Skidmore, Tufts, Trinity and Brandeis,” said coach Bob Hansen.Â “The NESCAC keeps getting better, which will only serve to strengthen our program.”
Crampton reached the semifinals in the NCAA tournament last year. But in a heavyweight semifinal match against recent Middlebury transfer Alex Johnston ’14 on Sunday morning, he nearly met his match much earlier in the season. Johnston lost in a final set tie-break, 10-8.
“Obviously I am disappointed to have lost yesterday,” said Johnston, “but the match gives me a lot of confidence knowing that I was two points away from beating one of the best Division III players in the nation without playing my best tennis.”
A tall and powerful player with a big serve, Johnston is new to Division III tennis. But he is no stranger to the high level of competition, having played the past two seasons at Foothill College in the California Junior College league.
With the first set locked at three games apiece, Johnston agreed to replay a point he had won after Crampton contested a close line call. Crampton won the point, and won the set.
“Often times in matches without chair umpires and referees, there are a few close calls and it is natural for an opponent to question some of the close ones,” Johnston said. “It wasn’t out of line – just the nature of the sport.”
In matches spread across a series of courts, without official oversight, the players at the invitational policed themselves, and the tenor of the matches varied from court to court. On court one, in the Johnston-Crampton semifinal, both players competed for every available advantage, each in his own way.
“In no way did [line-calling] affect the outcome of the match,” said Johnston.
After dropping the first set, the Leeds native rebounded on the strength of his serve and resilience from the baseline, winning the second set 6-4. In the tiebreak, a series of long points eventually fell in favor of Crampton, and the final match was sent back to Bates.
Meanwhile, two Middlebury first-years competed against one another in the finals of “C” bracket. Ari Smolyar ’16, defeated Allen Jackson ’16, 6-7 , 7-5, 10-4, in the all-Panther final, a strange but fitting introduction to tournament play on the Proctor courts.
“We play together everyday, and he’s a good friend of mine, so I knew that it would be a friendly match,” said Smolyar. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so as much as it was a physical battle on the court, it was a mental one as well.”
Quietly, another Middlebury first-year also made a statement. Jackson Frons ’16 defeated Skidmore’s top player, returning All-American Oliver Loutsenko, 7-5, 7-6  in the first round of “A” flight play. Frons lost to the eventual finalist Bettles in the quarterfinals.
The tournament was a proving ground for a host of talented first-years and for the newcomer Johnston. These contributions promise to add considerable depth to a team already buttressed by strong and consistent play from Spencer Lunghino ’13, Alec Parower ’13 and Courtney Mountifield ’14. While easily overlooked in individual events, depth is essential to a team’s success in the spring dual match season.
“Some of our most experienced players are abroad,” said coach Hansen, “but I am thrilled with where we are and where we are headed.”