Banner Season: Mustangs ready to serve up double gold defence against OUA’s top-tier tennis talent

Banner Season: Mustangs ready to serve up double gold defence against OUA’s top-tier tennis talent

Toronto – It is an exciting time for tennis north of the border, and while the professional tours are seeing plenty of Canadian talent in and around the top ranks, it’s time for the best of the best at the university level to try their hand at bringing home a championship. The Western Mustangs know what that feeling is like after sweeping the banners a season ago, but a talented field of five will be vying with the reigning champs to see who will serve up a winning combination at the 2019 OUA Tennis Championships this weekend.

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Western has certainly been synonymous with tennis success of late, especially on the women’s side having claimed three straight banners, but they’ll need to go for their fourth straight without the services of three-time OUA Player of the Year Helen He. Looking to fill the void left by the perennial all-star will be third-year Maddie Benn (West Vancouver, B.C.), along with all-star Angela Chen (Mississauga, Ont.), and reigning Rookie of the Year Camille Duggal (London, Ont.).

With a talent-laden roster like this, the top-seeded ‘Stangs certainly still have their sights set on gold and have worked to do just that according to coach Mike Richards. “It’s exciting going in as first seed and defending champions. Our players have practiced hard and are ready to compete at a high level to repeat and bring home our fourth championship in a row.”

Like their fellow Mustangs on the women’s side, the men’s team will hit the courts without their top player from a year ago as well, with Andre Szilvassy also graduating after claiming 2018 Player of the Year honours. Luckily, another all-star is hoping to double down on his dynamic debut a year ago, with sophomore Matthew Oliver (Toronto, Ont.), alongside veteran Mark Jensen (Oakville, Ont.), ready to take the reins.

Oliver capped off his impressive foray into banner season play by coming from a set down to pick up the win in his gold medal match against Toronto, and this valuable experience should come in handy if the third-ranked London squad wants to claim a third banner in the last four years.

While Western swept the golds a year ago, the Varsity Blues secured two silver medals for their efforts after bowing out by a 5-2 margin in both championship contests. Despite that being the third consecutive second-place finish for the Toronto men, they’ll enter this weekend as the top seed, and will once again turn to Sasha Obucina (Toronto, Ont.) to make good on that rank. U of T’s No. 1 player – alongside fellow 2018 OUA all-star Brett Stinson (Toronto, Ont.) and veteran Nathan Wong (Oakville, Ont.) playing out of the No. 2 and 3 positions, respectively – will help lead a young Blues squad with sights set on topping the podium for the first time since 2015.

It was a couple years earlier when the Varsity Blues women’s team scored a banner, but they too have one of the best in the business anchoring their golden aspirations. 2017 OUA Rookie of the Year Mara Stroe (Ajax, Ont.) played to a 2-1 record in both singles and doubles play out of Toronto’s top spot, but she won’t be going at it alone. She’ll turn to fellow third-year Samara Qaedizadeh (Toronto, Ont.) – who went a perfect 3-0 in doubles action – to help her second-ranked team continue their trend up the podium (2017 – bronze; 2018 – silver).

A potential opponent for Toronto in the semifinals on Saturday is the No. 3 Marauders, and after a pair of fourth-place finishes a year ago, McMaster will turn to a couple third-years to buoy their play on the hard court this weekend. Should the women’s team want to advance to face the Blues and continue their quest for a medal, the team’s best player all year heading into the final will surely play an important role.

Janna Malone (Ottawa, Ont.) has been as reliable as they come for the Hamilton bunch, reeling off a 6-2 record as the team’s No. 1 or No. 2 player (in singles and doubles combined) leading up to the championships. The veteran started her year strong, as the McMaster Female Athlete of the Week (Sept. 17) led her team to a season-opening win against Waterloo, and she’ll hope to book end her campaign with similar success.

Typically playing in the team’s third or fourth singles and second doubles unit, meanwhile, Martin Zelikovsky (Thornhill, Ont.) has matched Malone as the men’s team’s most successful player this season. The junior captured wins in all four doubles matches he has played, and with the loss of Victor Kapetanovic to graduation, the fourth-ranked maroon machine will need more of the same from Zelikovsky and company to have a lengthy championship run.

While the Marauders men are coming in on a winning streak, the York Lions are entering play with a more robust lineup than they’ve had all year, especially on the women’s side. The Lions boast a talented roster, but didn’t see as much time on the courts in the lead up to this weekend. That hasn’t dampened their spirits or aspirations; however, heading into the weekend.

The potential is there for the fifth-ranked women’s team to play for gold on Sunday and Claudia Poluga (Toronto, Ont.) will be a key piece to that puzzle. The fourth-year talent is a former OUA all-star from 2016, in what was her rookie campaign, and she’ll look to showcase that same level of play in her senior year to help her women’s team claim a medal in their seventh straight provincial finale.

While the Lions have been consistent in their podium finishes on the women’s side, the men’s team were more of a surprise bronze medalist in 2018, but after claiming their first podium finish since 2012, they are hoping to build on that this year. A key cog in that upstart team was rookie Tegbir Hara (Brampton, Ont.), and now with a year of experience under his belt, the all-star will aim for continued personal and team success this weekend.

Hara is just one example of what will be a fairly predominant youth movement at this year’s championship, but perhaps no team will epitomize that notion moreso than the Waterloo Warriors, as their fourth-seeded women’s team features five rookies hitting the court for the black and gold. One such first-year is Vanessa Seto (Richmond Hill, Ont.), who led her team to a 2-3 record in her debut season. Among the highlights of her 2019 play was her effort against the defending champs, as she picked up Waterloo’s lone win in the match with Western, besting her opponent by an 8-6 score.

A fellow first-year will aim to do what he has done all season for the Warriors men’s team since he entered the university ranks. Pavle Milic (Toronto, Ont.) has been an outstanding addition to the No. 2 Waterloo squad, excelling both at singles and doubles play. In his last match against Western, he beat the Mustangs’ No. 1 at singles and doubles (with his partner and team veteran John Chan), capping off what was a 4-1 record for the Warriors heading into the championship. Milic, Chan, and the strong mix of both experience and youth will have the team eyeing a podium finish to close out the campaign.

After bowing out in the opening round a year ago, the Brock Badgers are hoping for a more fortuitous fate in 2019, and it will be an experienced men’s team leading the charge for the sixth-seeded St. Catharines squad. At the centre of the Badgers attack, which has been building in terms of talent level and depth over the last couple seasons, is Gianluca Agostinelli (St. Catharines, Ont.). The fifth-year player has been the heart and soul of his hometown school’s crew and like he has throughout his time on the court, he will put everything into both his doubles and singles matches this weekend.

While the team had a bit of a tough time leading up to the championship, it is a clean slate in banner season, and like their male counterparts, there is some excitement on the women’s side heading into the provincial finale. Unlike their fellow Badgers, however, it is a younger group heading to the GTA this weekend, with third-year Liana Biktimirova (St. Catharines, Ont.) at the centre. Biktimirova has been the No. 6 Badgers top player this year and continues to improve each time she takes the court. She also provides a positive attitude and strong leadership for the team, positioning them well to take the next step.

Both Badgers teams will be part of the opening day’s festivities on Friday, October 11 at Mayfair Toronto East. Quarterfinals will rule the roost to kick off the championship, beginning at 9:00am From there, winners of the two men’s and women’s matches will advance to the semifinals on Saturday, which kick off at 11:00am, before the medal matches hit the court to wrap up play on Sunday.

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