Redemption: Pablo Alvarez leads Buffalo men's tennis to NCAA Tournament
Junior Pablo Alvarez of the men’s tennis team finally finished something that bothered him for nearly a year.
Last season, Alvarez lost the final point of what would have been a conference championship-clinching match for the Bulls and lost the match in a tiebreaker.
“I just kept thinking about it,” Alvarez said. “I just kept thinking about that one last point. I remember sitting there wondering, ‘What if I got that one last point? What if I just made one adjustment here?’”
Alvarez didn’t let the opportunity slip away this year. He defeated Binghamton’s Robert Lesage in the MAC Championship match and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player to help Buffalo claim it’s first-ever MAC Championship. Now he’ll help lead the Bulls into the NCAA Tournament next weekend against Ohio State.
In last year’s MAC Championship match against Ball State, Alvarez faced off against Ball State’s Lucas Andersen in the final matchup and the score tied at 3.
Alvarez fell into an early hole in the final set 4-3 before taking a 5-4 lead. Alvarez took a 6-5 lead but then Andersen played what Bulls junior Sergio Arevalillo called “the game of his life.”
“It was insane. [Andersen] was hitting everything back,” Arevalillo said. “Pablo was doing a great job going back and forth making him work, making go everywhere on the court and when he dropped the final shot and won, we were all shocked.”
After pushing the match to a tiebreaker, Anderson eventually dropped a ball on Alvarez’s side of the court, giving Anderson the 9-7 lead in the tiebreaker and a Mac Championship victory for Ball State.
It was a moment that left coaches, players and Alvarez devastated. Alvarez said he remembers being on a quiet bus heading back to Buffalo and thinking about that final shot over and over again in his head.
Alvarez wanted redemption. He needed it.
After the season was over, the junior went back home to Madrid, Spain for the offseason. He, along with Arevalillo and other teammates, worked hard to prepare for their upcoming seasons and another opportunity to get back to the championship game. He lifted weights and practiced every day.
As Alvarez said, he “treated every practice like the final set of the MAC Championship.”
Along with his work on the physical game, Alvarez worked on the mental aspect. He read books and studied the game more. He became calm on the practice court and made an effort to “relax” during matches when he was down.
Arevalillo remembers working with him in practice and how much Alvarez improved.
“Pablo and I worked really hard this offseason,” Arevalillo said with a chuckle. “I just remember playing with him and everything was just synced. He’d hit the ball, I’d hit back and it was tougher and tougher as we continued throughout the offseason. Pablo got better day-by-day and near the end, it was tough to play him.”
Head coach Lee Nickell also noticed the improvement when Alvarez returned for his junior season.
“I knew that he was going to improve,” Nickell said. “Obviously, I expected guys to come back after an offseason improved. Pablo did a good job and watching him practice, I saw the same guy, but I saw a better player.”
At the start of his junior season, Alvarez began the season 8-1 in the second and third spot in singles and doubles play, respectively. Nickell placed Alvarez in the No. 1 singles position after his string of success.
But Alvarez then lost his next five decisions after the move.
“I just remember struggling at the top spot, but I wasn’t angry,” Alvarez said. “I knew that I was struggling, but I already had success earlier in the year. It was an adjustment period needed, but had I remained at the top spot, I would’ve eventually succeeded.”
After his struggle, Nickell moved Alvarez back to his original role in the No. 2 spot, heading into the MAC Tournament. Alvarez finished with what he called his “best season” going 26-16 in singles play.
But he knew it wasn’t the teams’ best performance. He said the regular season was “disappointing” as a whole, but the team knew it had a chance to get back to the championship game.
“Me, Sergio, [junior] Amir [Hromic], all of us knew that once we got into the tournament, we had a chance to win it,” Alvarez said. “We lost those tough games, but they made us better. It helped us as we got back to playing familiar opponents in conference play.”
Against Northern Illinois (18-5, 4-1 MAC) in the conference tournament semifinals this season, Alvarez shined, winning his singles match against the Huskies’ Simon Formont 7-5, 7-5. Alvarez and Hromic dominated in doubles competition, winning 6-1 as the Bulls made the trip to their second MAC Championship in as many seasons.
Against Binghamton, Alvarez lost his doubles match but won his singles match, defeating Binghamton’s Robin Lesage 7-6, 6-3. It was his teammate and best friend Arevalillo who closed out the match with a 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory over Binghamton’s Frenk Cote, giving Buffalo its first conference championship.
After the program’s first-ever MAC Championship, Alvarez was named the Most Outstanding Player and was selected as a member of the 2015 All-MAC team. But his individual accolades were shadowed by his joy for the rest of the Bulls.
“I was happy for myself, but I was more excited for the team,” Alvarez said. “I wanted to win for us and that what the awards said. I wouldn’t have done it without my teammates and my coaches. They placed us in a great position and allowed us to represent the school. The award has my name on it, but we won it.”
Alvarez and Buffalo face Ohio State (25-8, 10-1 Big Ten), which is currently the No. 12 team in the country, in the NCAA Tournament on May 8. While Alvarez said he was shocked to see Ohio State pop up as the Bulls’ opponent, he thinks Buffalo is ready to pull the upset.
“You just never know in tennis,” Alvarez said. “We have a chance to make history again and get the first win in the program’s history in the NCAA Tournament. We just have to continue to prepare like we’ve have all season. If we can do that, we should be able to contend with Ohio State.”
The Bulls play Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio. The game will take place on Friday at 1 p.m.
Quentin Haynes is a sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com