After unusual season, Ohio State tennis teams primed for Big Ten tournament and beyond

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
The strange nature of Ohio State's tennis season is reflected in the national ranking of sophomore Cannon Kingsley, who is 25-0 this season but has seen his ranking from No. 4 to outside the rankings.

The Big Ten tennis championships are this weekend, and the Ohio State men’s and women’s teams are back in familiar spots as the top seed in each tournament.

Little else has been typical about this season.

“It’s been a wild year,” men’s coach Ty Tucker said.

“Crazy,” said Melissa Schaub, who coaches the women’s team.

At least there has been a season. Last year’s ended just as conference play started because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the Big Ten mandated that its tennis programs play a conference-only season except for participation in the ITA National Team Indoor Championship during the winter.

That left a major hole in the schedule and a major dent in each team’s resume. The men’s team, which has won the past 14 Big Ten regular-season titles, has been the only northern program consistently among the national elite. The Buckeyes’ matches against those nonconference teams tend to be their toughest competition.

Tucker, who oversees both the men’s and women’s programs, isn’t happy that his teams were denied the opportunity to play a national schedule. Even the ITA tournament was of limited value to the men. Ohio State wasn’t permitted to play in the fall, got hit by a rash of COVID cases in the winter, and wasn’t close to full strength when it lost to Virginia 4-2 in the second round of the ITA Kickoff Weekend on Jan. 23.

“That was a difficult pill to swallow,” senior John McNally said. “Playing Virginia to make national indoors and to not be at full strength, obviously was not ideal.”

That began a slide down the rankings that had less to do with the team’s performance than the lack of perceived competition and quirks in the ranking system. Ohio State’s 67-match Big Ten winning streak ended when Michigan defeated the Buckeyes 4-2 on March 14 in Ann Arbor, but that was OSU’s only league loss.

The Buckeyes avenged that defeat with a dramatic 4-3 win at home in the regular-season finale when freshman JJ Tracy, battling cramps, gutted out a three-set victory in the decisive match.

“It was unbelievable. It’s what I always dreamed of — clinching it for my team and seeing the fans go crazy and all my team rushing me,” Tracy said. “It was a great feeling, especially against Michigan.”

The OSU women followed the same pattern. Their only conference loss was to the Wolverines, and the Buckeyes won their rematch 4-3. Sophomore Irina Cantos Siemers took the decisive match at No. 1 singles after dropping the first set.

The Buckeyes women are looking for their first Big Ten title since winning it in 2016 and ’17.

Ohio State women's tennis coach Melissa Schaub believes her team has unfinished business in the Big Ten tournament after the coronavirus disrupted last season and this season.

“Irina mentioned this the other day: She’s never finished the season. The Big Ten season got called right when we were getting ready to start last year. The kids feel they have a little bit of unfinished business,” Schaub said. “We were having a good season and it got cut short for obvious reasons. They feel like they want to prove themselves.”

So do the men.

“We started off a little shaky,” said Cannon Kingsley, who has shared the No. 1 singles role with McNally. “It was a little different from usual years when we had a lot of non-conference play. As the season went on, we realized we’ve just got to play our game. Even if we’re not getting the toughest competition, we’ve just got to keep playing to our level.”

The lack of a nonconference schedule has a harmful effect on the Buckeyes’ ranking. Ohio State is ranked only 22nd after starting the season at No. 3.

It’s even worse in the individual computerized rankings. Consider Kingsley, who’s undefeated at 25-0. He started the year at No. 4 and fell to No. 124 last week before dropping out of the rankings entirely this week.

Tucker hopes the NCAA takes into account the skewed rankings when making its team, singles and doubles brackets, which will be announced Monday.

But that’s not his focus yet. For now it’s on the Big Ten tournament and continuing Ohio State’s conference dominance.

“You play to win a Big Ten title,” Tucker said, “so anytime you get a Big Ten title, it's super sweet.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Big Ten championships

Where: Men's tournament at Lincoln, Neb.; women's tournament at Madison, Wis.

When: Ohio State men play Michigan State at 11 a.m. Friday; Ohio State women play Wisconsin or Michigan at 4 p.m. Friday. Semifinals are Saturday and championship is Sunday.