By Matt Hill
In an overall team tennis match that for the most part was anti-climatic, Milligan’s Ricky Jones and Pikeville’s Dimitry Babenkov might have played one the best matches ever at the relatively new Milligan College Tennis Courts.
Jones, a former Elizabethton High School standout, gave a tremendous effort in a 5-7, 7-5, (10-8) defeat to the Auckland, New Zealand native Sunday.
Team wise, the Milligan men lost 8-1 to Pikeville while the Milligan women went pretty much unchallenged in a 9-0 victory that was marred by Pikeville forfeits.
While there weren’t a whole lot of competitive matches being played on either side, the one that stood out the most made up for all of them.
It looked like Babenkov was going to cruise early en route to a 5-2 first set lead, but Jones kept grinding away and propelled by a lethal forehand, won five-straight games to take the first set by a score of 7-5.
“I’m not disappointed with that match at all,” Milligan College head coach Ryan Reynolds said. “That was one of the best matches he has played all year.”
Babenkov was going for his shots, and in the process possessed some outstanding shot making himself. As a result, he didn’t let Jones put it away and put himself in a position to win.
There were no breaks of serves in the second set heading into Jones’ service game at 5-6. However, Jones was broken and the match went to a super-tiebreak.
Babenkov is definitely an outstanding player, but Jones makes his opponents work for wins and on this day, Jones would not give an inch when the going was tough.
While Babenkov was trying to get the point over with, Jones continued to keep hitting balls until a mistake was made.
“Ricky’s game style is, he’s fast , he’s strong and he hits a heavy ball with a lot of spin so he drives a lot of guys crazy and gives his opponent problems,” Reynolds said. “Babenkov had a lot weapons, but Ricky kind of broke him down. He hit a steady, heavy, spin ball.”
A few years ago the International Tennis Federation (ITF) installed a super tiebreak for the third set. Had the match been played out, Jones might have been able to wear his opponent down. Unfortunately for Jones, Babenkov had all the momentum after the break of serve to end the second set, and the Pikeville freshman was too much in the super-tiebreak for Jones.
Still, it was an incredible match that won’t be forgotten by all who witnessed it.
“I know he was happy how he played,” Reynolds said. “I was extremely happy. He played well.
Reynolds also thought Jones showed a lot of strong character after the match by not regretting the loss.
“He’s always been a good kid,” he said. “I would like to have 10 kids who had Ricky’s attitude.”
Milligan’s lone win of the day on the men’s side came from Mickey Brown, an 8-4 victor over Lucas Olivera.
Brown rebounded from a doubles loss with Cody Horne to have a stellar singles match. The match was cut short because the team match had been decided in Pikeville’s favor.
“Pikeville is a good team and will probably be ranked this week, but anytime anybody wins a match against a good team it is a highlight for us. He’s been getting better all year and he played steady and won the match.”
In other Milligan singles play Sebastian Johnson lost 6-0, 6-0, Horne lost 6-0, 6-3; Caleb Fridell fell 8-6, Wesley Rice lost 8-3 to wrap up the afternoon.
Jones and Fridell had the most compelling doubles match, losing 9-7 to Babenkov and Olivera.
In girls action, Sarah Rainwater won 8-4, Halie Winfrey took an 8-1 victory as did Ahmee Kelly.
Kayla Kelly and Rainwater won 8-1 in doubles and Kayla’s sister Ahmee teamed up with Celeste Carpenter to win 8-1 as well.
It was not a challenge at all for the Lady Buffs, but the NAIA national qualifier is less than two weeks away, and things will get tougher.
Reynolds thinks they’re ready for the challenge.
“Looking ahead to the qualifier, they’re already thinking about it,” he said. “They’re also looking forward to their next match with Carson-Newman.”
The Carson Newman match for both the men and women takes place Saturday in Jefferson City.