Four hours and 11 minutes after freshman Mario Paccini and Elon University started their Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) semifinal match against the College of Charleston, Paccini found himself defending for the team’s life.
The young, upstart Phoenix had a 3-1 lead over the Cougars as Paccini went to a third-set tiebreak on Court No. 2 against junior Rodrigo Encinas. But after two Elon losses, Paccini needed to win to extend Elon’s season.
Tied at 14-14 and serving, Paccini went too long on a return, giving Encinas the chance to serve for the win — both for the court and for the match. Paccini already staved off a match point once when Encinas served.
But this time, Encinas’ serve proved too much to handle for Paccini, and the ball flew off his racket to the next court, ending the match and the season for Elon.
Afterward, Paccini was exhausted, saying he was cramping for nearly the entire third set. But he said he would always look back fondly on his performance Saturday.
“You never want to remember matches like this, but if I’m being honest, it was a great match,” Paccini said. “This was my first conference [tournament], so I’ll always remember this.”
Head coach Michael Leonard — who has led the Phoenix for 11 years — was in awe of the moment and the level of play between Paccini and Encinas.
“You don’t see that very often,” Leonard said. “You can probably watch tennis for 20 years, and you won’t see a tiebreak go that long in that situation. I can’t think of a tiebreak where it’s three-all, where a tiebreaker went that long in singles. In a three-all match. Ever.
“And they stepped up. They stepped up. Really, I’m glad our team watched that, because both of those guys played to win. There wasn’t anybody who played scared. When they were down, they played to win. That’s what it’s supposed to be, and I give credit to them. That was a hell of a match.”
Still, the match is a season-ending loss for Elon. But Leonard sees the challenges he threw at the freshmen on the team as character-building.
“We’re really young,” Leonard said. “We put these guys in these situations as freshmen, and that’s tough. We had four freshmen playing singles. They’re going to grow from this, they’re going to learn from this. I’m disappointed for the team because they worked so hard for this.”
Leonard admits that the tough defeat is “going to hurt all of us,” but he’s hopeful the team — which was another one of his strong teams at Elon, winning 17 matches on the year — will respond to this similarly to a team that previously lost at Elon in a conference tournament.
“I’ve been here before,” Leonard said. “In 2013, we lost one tight like this. Then we came back and won the championship the next year. I’m hopeful we can do that again. These guys can use this as motivation for the following year.”
And there’s no doubt that Paccini — as well as the whole Phoenix team — will be able to quickly remember the 30-point, third-set tiebreak during the next few years.