If defending a back-to-back championship is difficult, try successfully doing it thrice.
The National University Bulldogs, though, made it look easy as they blanked the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons, 3-0, en route to their 44th straight win and their fourth consecutive UAAP men’s tennis plum, Saturday at the Rizal Memorial Tennis Center.
In the first singles match, NU fifth-year player Leander Lazaro set the tone early to deny his batchmate Gelo Esguerra a chance in the match. The former Rookie of the Year registered an early break on serve to go up 3-0, before Esguerra stole his serve to get to the scoreboard. From there, Lazaro romped to three straight games despite the challenge of the Maroon veteran and secured the first set, 6-1.
The start of the second frame of the match was a see-saw battle as it went on serve until the fourth game. Lazaro plucked four straight points after trailing 15-0 on Esguerra’s serve to eventually take the only service break of the set. Taking control of his own service games, the UAAP Season 75 Most Valuable Player clinched the first match for the Bulldogs.
In the following match, the scheduled first doubles outing, UP graduating Team Captain Joshua Miranda and partner, Kyle Joseph, started like a house on fire after dictating the pace and took the first two games of the opening frame. However, the formidable tandem of Jigo Peña and Al Madrio shook of service woes to level the match at 2 apiece. The two pairs battled hard in the following games until the Maroons threatened to steal the set after having triple break point and leading 5-4. From there, Madrio and Peña broke Miranda’s serve to start off the comeback and, ultimately, closed out the set, 7-5.
As if a dragon awakened by this challenge, the Bulldogs turned a 0-30 deficit on serve to eight unanswered points and tasted the lead at 2-0. Service problems remained Peña’s enemy, but the fourth-year veteran and his partner leaned on their net plays to put UP in deep trouble at 5-0. Miranda held on to his serve to keep the Maroons breathing. But Peña produced the biggest serves when it mattered and squashed any hopes of their opponents, ending the match with an emphatic service ace, 6-1.
Smelling blood, reigning MVP Fritz Verdad faced a familiar foe in UP’s Joshua Cano in the second singles match. The last time the two protagonists met was in the UAAP Season 76 Finals that saw Verdad clinched the title against the then-rookie Cano.
Verdad showed flashes of brilliance that earned him the back-to-back top player honors to start the match-up. The fifth-year stalwart emerged victorious in the long games and led up to 5-0. With some good plays of his own, Cano finally plucked a game on his own serve. The returning UP player then broke Verdad’s serve to love, before the latter turned to his service to close out the set, 6-2.
The Maroon junior took an early lead at the start of the second set when Verdad made costly mistakes. The NU veteran then forced his opponent to make errors of his own and put the set at 2 games-all. With Verdad finally settling down, he pulled off timely winners and controlled the rallies to eventually deny Cano for the second time. In effect, the graduating ace put the icing on this sweet fourth straight UAAP men’s tennis crown with a 6-3 rout.
Eventual MVP recipient Leander Lazaro shared that winning championships every after the season is the purest of joys. Out of the four championships he gained, this title is the sweetest for him and his fellow graduating players. “Iba kasi yung this season kasi yung iba last [year of UAAP] career na,” Lazaro reflected. “Ito yung pinakamasarap, pinaka-emotional.”
Former MVPs Lazaro and Verdad, along with fellow singles ace Dheo Talatayod, and Madrio, have all exhausted their eligibility for the Bulldogs.
Champion coach Karl Santamaria reiterated how difficult it was to repeat as champions, especially with the level of competition this season. The five-year mentor pointed out the near-loss against the University of the East Red Warriors in the first round as the ultimate wake up call for his players to perform better. He shared, “after yung [tie] nung UE, we started playing better talaga. Somehow, lumabas na yung totoong laro namin.”
To close it out, Santamaria considered the performance of his team in this Final as the best they had played all season.