It took more than a day in total hours over three ties in the Finals, but in the end, the top-seeded National University emerged as victors.
Turning back the only squad that sent them to losses, the Bulldogs denied the Ateneo De Manila University a second UAAP title, taking their fifth championship in eight years in the league, 3-1, Saturday afternoon at the Colegio San Agustin Bulacan Tennis Courts.
Still reeling from a disappointing loss in the second tie, the Bulldogs emphasized the importance of getting at least one of the first two matches of the contest.
Graduating senior Wilson Oblea, the last remaining member of NU’s maiden kings, took it to heart. He emerged the victor, 8-6, in the first-set tie-break of the first singles match, past Blue Eagle rookie Gab Tiamson.
Over on the other court, Ateneans Erj Gatdula and Luke Flores started strong with a 6-2 drubbing of AJ Alejandre and Rucel Cero in the opening frame of the first doubles rubber.
Tiamson and the Bulldogs’ duo extended their respective matches to a decider in contrasting fashion. The De La Salle Zobel alumnus dominated Oblea, 6-3, while Alejandre and Cero needed a come-from-behind win in another tie-break.
National U then needed just a split, but eventually pocketed both matches to take the 2-0 lead.
Oblea, the eventual Most Valuable Player, fended off a scare as Tiamson – fighting cramps – recovered; he consequently take the match at 7-5. The senior fought through his own cramps to finish before dealing with the pain at the conclusion of the match lying on the floor.
Equally dramatic as their senior’s win, Alejandre and Cero quashed 10 match points from Flores and Gatdula to snag the first doubles match in the third in another tie-break. The Bulldogs came back from 3-5 down in the said frame and 1-5 down in the extension to take the advantage.
Ateneo captain Marcen Gonzales kept his squad in the fight with a huge 6-3, 1-6, 7-5 denial of Allen Manlangit in the second singles match. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs’ date with destiny was inevitable.
Justin Prulla and Jeric Accion vowed to make amends from last Tuesday’s defeat and made it count. They soundly defeated Bong Gonzales and Julian Dayrit in just two sets.
Prulla could not get his bearings at the onset of the match, but with the help of Accion, the third-year stalwart eventually found his groove and ended the match on his terms.
As the chair umpire declared it a “game, set, and match,” head coach Karl Santamaria let out his emotions.
“Starting from ‘di kami nakasali last year, it weighed down on me, ‘yung disappointment,” the UAAP tennis legend admitted. “I took full responsibility of what happened.
“Hindi ko maisip kung anong gagawin [before the season started], kasi looking at the lineups ng ibang schools, wala akong star players unlike years past. It always has to be a team effort. We just had to do it the hard way,” he continued.
And asthey finally reclaimed the championship, the tears shed Saturday afternoon were for joy.
Santamaria ended, “It is more than what I have hoped for and could imagine. I am happy for them because they worked hard for it.”