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Men's Tennis Clinches Regular Season Mountain West Title

by Frank Mercogliano

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Rafael Abdulsalam came back from an opening set loss to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 and clinch a 4-1 victory over San Diego State, giving New Mexico its third outright Mountain West regular season title in the last four seasons.  UNM won titles in 2019 and 2021 (there was no 2020 conference season).  UNM was able to claim the outright championship when Air Force stunned UNLV 4-2 at the Academy in a match that ended just moments before UNM’s in a nearly five-hour thriller.

For the Lobos, it was well over three hours, but the wait was worth it.  After Abdulsalam watched his opponent Chikaya Sato hit a return long, he spun to a raucous crowd that was well over 300 strong, splayed his arms wide and soaked in the adulation.  He then was met by teammates Arda Azkara and Georgio Samaha, who had both won handily to give UNM a 3-0 lead.

From there, after the team sang the fight song, they learned of the UNLV result, which meant that Vice President/Director of Athletics Eddie Nunez was able to present the regular season Mountain West trophy to the players.  From there it was a lot of pictures, and one Gatorade bath for head coach Chris Russell, who earned his first title at the helm of the Lobos.

That UNM was in the enviable position of needing to win just once on the remaining four courts was courtesy of Azkara, who kept his perfect home winning streak at No. 1 intact with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Johannes Seeman.  That followed Samaha’s 6-2, 6-4 win, a methodical one that opened with a loss of serve in the opening game.  Samaha shook that off and tacked onto his team-leading win total with his 23rd of the year.

UNM had also swept the doubles point as Azkara and Alex Maggs won 6-2 at No. 1 doubles and Samaha and Ryoma Matsushita won 6-3 at No. 3 doubles.

Up 3-0, Nikolay Sysoev had two shots to end the drama with a pair of match-points, but he couldn’t convert on those two breaks, moving his third set to 5-5.  Then down 6-5 after he was broken, he held a love-40 lead, and Eugenio Gonzalez Fitzmaurice was able to win the next four to get SDSU on the board at 3-1, winning 6-4, 6-7 (7-3), 7-5.

But, UNM had the upper hand.  Abdulsalam was up in his third set, as was Aram Noroozian and Matsushita was dead even.

The Lobos now get the chance to face off with UNLV on Saturday knowing that regardless, the Lobos will have a bye in the Mountain West Tournament next week in Las Vegas, moving directly to the semifinals.

NOTES:  Noroozian had his match halted up 4-1 in the third, preventing a 21st win … Azkara is now 13-5 at No. 1 this season, and a perfect 5-0 in the league at No. 1 … Noroozian still has won 14 of his last 16, and Samaha has now won 15 of his last 17 … Maggs and Azkara are now 4-0 in MW doubles, and Maggs has a team-best 15 doubles wins.