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Lobos Win Tense Battle With Portland 4-2

by Frank Mercogliano

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico and Portland waged an epic battle, and three matches went to a third set, but it was the No. 68 Lobos that took the final three singles matches for a thrilling 4-2 victory over the Pilots to move to 7-2 on the season and win its third straight match.  The Lobos will go for four a row against Rice on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.   Portland and Rice will face off at McKinnon Family Tennis Stadium on Saturday at noon.

For a fifth straight match, the Lobos did not win the doubles point, and for the third straight match, and the fourth time this season, it just didn’t matter.  That’s because UNM is strong in singles, and both Aram Noroozian and Georgia Samaha each won their seventh straight matches to lead the way.

New Mexico was down 2-1 after losing the doubles point and a split of the opening two singles matches, but UNM got four opening set singles wins to set the tone.  Samaha had no problems as No. 6 singles, winning 6-3, 6-3, but that was followed by the only other straight set win on the day, turned in by Portland’s Nicolas Ocana.  Ocana took down Nikolay Sysoev 7-5, 6-3, but Sysoev, down 4-0 in the second set, made a match of it.  Down two breaks, he held serve, and then in back-to-back games won a deuce point to move to down just 4-3, but Ocana held on.

With the match 2-1 Portland, everything was tight on the other four courts.  Aram Noroozian, who entered the match 7-2 in three-set matches, lost his opener at No. 4 singles 6-4, but as he has lately, found a second gear.  Noroozian bounced back with a 6-1 win in the second set and was set up for a potential third comeback win in the last four outings.

Just to his left, Ryoma Matsushita was in the opposite boat.  Matsushita bounced and energizer-bunnied his way to an opening set 6-3 win, but his opponent Maxim Groysman was able to match that effort, and turned in a 6-3 win in the second set, moving that match to a third.

On courts 1 and 2, things moved a little slower, as Rafael Abdulsalam won his first set 6-2, but was in a battle in the second.  Eleftherios Neos held a 5-4 edge with a pair of set points to play with, but Abdulsalam force Neos into the net to save the first, and then watched as Neos hit a forehand long to move everything to 5-5.

Neos was able to serve back for 6-5, and Abdulsalam then had a shot at 40-40 to force a tiebreaker, but when Neos was barely able to return, Abdulsalam raced to the net, but he hit his drop shot into the net, giving Neos a hard fought 7-5 second set, moving that match to a third as well.

The reality is there probably should have been a fourth third set, but Arda Azkara at No. 1 singles had other plans.  As Noroozian finished off his win with a 6-0 third set to even the match at 2-2, Azkara, a 6-4 winner in the first set over Sema Pankin, trailed most of the second set.  Pankin had two set points at 40-30 up 5-4, but Azkara was able to save both.  Again down 6-5 and at set point, Azkara’s forehand was perfect, giving him a shot at a tiebreaker.

After taking a 1-0 lead, Pankin took four of the next five and led 4-2 at the break, and Pankin was serving for a shot at a strangehold on the set.  On the first point, Azkara hit a wicked forehand to the far court and Pankin could only watch it sail by to get to 4-3, but Pankin jumped on an Azkara to serve for a 5-3 lead.  That was the last point Pankin would get.

Azkara get the next four, the final one when Pankin’s backhand return sailed long.  That led to a protract primal scream of joy from Azkara, matched by his teammates, which more importanly put UNM up 3-2.  That was all UNM needed, as Portland seemed to fall off the pace as the match wore on.  Matsushita led 4-1 when Azkara clinched, and Abdulsalam was up 3-0, setting up a race to the finish.  That race was won by Mastushita, who served out his game, watching a Groysman hit sail well wide, with Matsushita turning to his teammates who rushed to the victor.

The win followed the usual formula for UNM, with wins at Nos. 4, 5 and 6 by Noroozian, Matsushita and Samaha, and then getting one other win somewhere on the board.  That win was Azkara, who continued his torrid home pace.  Azkara in two seasons is now a perfect 9-0 at home at No. 1 singles.

NOTES:  Azkara is 9-1 at home all-time in dual match play, losing just his first career match, playing at No. 2 against Utah in 2022 … Samaha now has a team-best 16 wins … Noroozian has now won 11 of his last 13 dual matches dating back to last year … Samaha now has 34 career singles wins after leading the team with 18 a year ago … Matsushita became the third Lobo in double-figure wins this season with 10 … UNM’s bottom of the order is now 23-3 in singles in the spring … UNM’s 7-2 start is the best start since the 2014 team opened up 7-2.