Alexey Nesterov stared at the net and took a deep breath.
The Russian sophomore and his partner for the Alabama men’s tennis team were up one point in a tiebreaker with the doubles point on the line at the SEC Championship on Thursday, and he had just slammed his first serve into the net.
Nesterov and Thibault Cancel had come back from a 5-2 deficit to tie and then take a narrow lead. Now he had to make that second serve count.
SEC Men’s Tennis Tournament
Where: Alabama Tennis Stadium
Friday’s schedule: Quarterfinals, Vanderbilt vs. Florida and Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State at noon; Alabama vs. Tennessee and Georgia vs. Texas A&M at 4 p.m.
Saturday’s schedule: Semifinals, 2 p.m.
Sunday’s schedule: Championship, noon
“OK man, you’ve got it,” Nesterov told himself before the winning serve. “Just don’t double-fault.”
He put it right into the chest of Kentucky’s William Bushamuka, who deflected it far out of bounds.
The Crimson Tide, seeded 12th, rode the momentum from that doubles point to a 4-1 victory over 25th-ranked Kentucky to advance to play fourth-seeded Tennessee on Friday at the Alabama Tennis Stadium at 4 p.m.
Nesterov took a little bit of mustard off the serve and put a little more spin on it. He aimed well.
“It was a good serve,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t comfortable for him to go body serve so that’s what I did.”
Nesterov and Cancel won their doubles match by tiebreaker and the duo of Patrick Kaukovalta and Zhe Zhou won their set 7-5 to give UA two out of three for the point. The Crimson Tide promptly won the first singles set on five of six courts to take command.
Nesterov defeated Kento Yamada 7-5, 6-3 at No. 5 and Zhou defeated Austin Hussein 6-3, 6-3 at No. 6. Kentucky’s Bushamuka took a point at No. 2, winning 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 over Kaukovalta, but Alabama got a big win a No. 1 from its ace, Mazen Osama, a junior from Cairo, Egypt.
Giant-killer Osama, ranked 18th in singles, notched his eighth win over a ranked opponent and his second in as many days with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over Ryo Matsumura, who is ranked No. 8. Osama fell behind 4-1 in the second set, but seemed to break Matsumura mentally after the Kentucky player argued a call that went against him.
“It’s good to see your opponent being like that,” Osama said. “Maybe that happens just because of the way I play.
“I had two bad games in the second set. I just tried to step up my game a little bit. I think he just kind of gave up.”
Alabama coach George Husack believes the victory should put Alabama in the NCAA Tournament. The field will be announced next week.
“We’ll be in the 30s (in the rankings) apparently, and 42 has been the cutoff before,” Husack said. “I feel good about it. I know if we win Tennessee (on Friday) we’re for sure in. We’ve done what we’ve needed to do to be right there.”
In other matches, Vanderbilt blanked LSU 4-0, Ole Miss defeated South Carolina 4-1 and Georgia bested Arkansas 4-2.
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.