MOBILE, Ala. – The Lindsey Wilson women's tennis team fought all the way to the end, but the Blue Raiders eventually fell to top-ranked Georgia Gwinnett 5-3 on Sunday in the NAIA National Championship match at the Mobile Tennis Center.
In a rematch of the 2016 national championship, the second-seeded Blue Raiders (22-5) once again clawed back-and-forth with the Grizzlies (26-0), but LWC saw its comeback attempt come up short of denying Georgia Gwinnett a second-straight title.
It was a struggle just to get things started as inclement weather plagued the Mobile area all weekend. As warm-ups were underway on Saturday for the original start time of 1 p.m. CT, a lightning delay paused first serve. When play was later about to resume, rain hit the area causing another delay and pushing back first serve by four hours. The match was eventually rescheduled for an 8 a.m. CT start on Sunday.
Once the match finally began, it was the Grizzlies that held the advantage following the three doubles matches.
Georgia Gwinnett was quickly out front after Jovana Peric and Minja Gligic (ranked No. 23 in doubles) struggled against Valeria Podda and Klara Dohnalova (ranked No. 2) at the No. 2 doubles flight. The Blue Raider duo had trouble getting any momentum going as the Grizzlies scored six-straight to start the flight, eventually winning 8-1 to secure the first point of the day.
At No. 3 doubles, Alex Shchipakina and Natalia Kattah trailed early 3-1 to Margarida Abreu and Emerald Able, but managed to trim the deficit to 4-3. Two quick points later put the Grizzlies up 6-3, and the two teams went on to trade the next four points as Georgia Gwinnett won the battle 8-5 to go up 2-0 overall.
Lindsey Wilson avoided a doubles sweep after Fiona Curty and Maria Prados Cid (ranked No. 7) salvaged a point at the top doubles flight when they held off Chiara Di Salvo and Alyona Vasilyeva (ranked No. 1). Curty and Prados Cid trailed 4-3, but three-straight points gave them a 6-4 advantage. With a 7-5 lead, the Blue Raiders had their serve broke to make it 7-6, only for the LWC duo to break right back to win the flight 8-6 and cut the Lindsey Wilson deficit to 2-1 heading into singles play.
Georgia Gwinnett captured the first singles point after Able defeated Kattah at the No. 6 position in straight sets, 6-0, 6-2, to make it a 3-1 overall score in favor of the Grizzlies.
The Blue Raiders began to climb back into things, tying the score at 3-3 thanks to a pair of wins from their freshman duo.
Peric claimed one point at No. 5 singles after defeating Abreu (ranked No. 50 in singles) in straight sets. She led 3-2 in the opening set before closing out the frame 6-3. Peric kept that momentum rolling in the second set as she sprinted away from Abreu for the 6-1 win to again cut the Grizzlies lead down to one at 3-2.
Then the rain returned to the Mobile area and suspended play once again.
At the time of the delay, Gligic (ranked No. 25) was up a set and leading 5-3 in set two at No. 2 singles, while Curty (ranked No. 41) was down a set and tied 4-4 in set two at No. 4 singles. Prados Cid (ranked No. 46) was down a set and behind 3-2 in set two at No. 3, while Shchipakina (ranked No. 10) had just forced a third set at No. 1 singles after dropping the first set 6-3, but responding with a 6-1 win in set two.
Just over four hours later, the courts dried and play was finally able to continue in Mobile.
Shortly after play was resumed, Gligic finished off her match at No. 2 singles with a 6-3, 6-3, win over Dohnalova (ranked No. 7) to level the overall score at 3-3.
It came down to three tightly-contested matches on the final three singles courts.
Curty fell behind in her second set 5-4, but fought off match point on four separate occasions to tie the marathon second set at 5-5. She then went ahead 6-5, only for Vasilyeva (ranked No. 30) to capture the next point and send the set into a tiebreaker. The lone upperclassman on the squad fought tooth and nail, battling to a 5-5 tiebreak, but Curty eventually fell in the tiebreaker 7-5 to give the Grizzlies a 4-3 match lead.
On court one, Shchipakina trailed 3-0 early in the third set to Podda (ranked No. 2), but managed to cut the gap to 3-2. That's as close as Shchipakina would come however as her Grizzly counterpart captured the next four points to win the set 6-2 and capture the championship for the Grizzlies 5-3. When the match ended, Prados Cid was down 6-5 to Di Salvo (ranked No. 11) in the second set at No. 3 singles, tying to rally and force a third set.
Sunday's loss is the first to an NAIA institution this year for the Blue Raiders. Lindsey Wilson had previously beaten 12 top-25 ranked teams in the NAIA, including No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6. LWC was the first NAIA team this year to take at least three points off the Grizzlies, and just the second institution to do so at any level.
The loss ends the Blue Raiders' 2017 season with a 22-5 record and the program's second-straight appearance in the national title match.