Ahmed Atayev, one of the heroes of Minnetonka’s come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Edina in the Class 2A team quarterfinals, called over to teammate Ben Wheaton with a question.
“How do you say it?” Atayev asked. “Oh, yeah. Guts over fear. That’s what did it.”
The junior played gutsy tennis in the final set, rallying from a match point to win at No. 4 singles 6-3, 6-7, 7-5. It was one of two matches in which the Skippers, who trailed 3-1 match, rallied by winning four consecutive games in the third and final set.
Atayev’s victory tied the match 3-3. It was decided in Minnetonka’s favor when the Smiley brothers — junior Carter and sophomore Trevor — teamed to win at No. 1 doubles 6-7 (7-4), 6-4, 6-4. They trailed 4-2 in the final set before closing out the victory, and with it the match, by winning the final four games. The ensuing cheer when the match was over at Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota is something Carter said he never will forget.
“It gave me shivers,” he said. “It was super exciting that we could come through for the team.”
Interestingly, despite being brothers, the Smileys had not played doubles together until this season. Trevor has a twin brother who was his doubles partner until giving up the sport. Enter Carter.
“Now I wouldn’t want to play doubles with anyone [else],” Trevor said. “We connect so well.”
For Atayev, the victory was just another milestone in a whirlwind of a year. He and his family have lived in Minnetonka for only seven months, having moved to Minnesota from Turkmenistan.
How does someone from Turkmenistan, which borders Afghanistan, land in Minnesota?
“My father works for the State Department,” Atayev said. “He found out Minnesota is the best place to raise a family.”
But, the cold?
“Turkmenistan can be very hot,” he replied. “We wanted different weather.”
Before this season, Atayev never had played team tennis. The verdict?
“I like it more,” he said. “You’re responsible for everyone on the team. And the team and the support we get is so great. You can really feel it.”
In other Class 2A quarterfinals, No. 1-seeded East Ridge, motivated by an unexpected loss in the 2015 team quarterfinals, routed St. Cloud Tech 7-0.
“Our guys learned a lesson last year,” East Ridge coach Suzie Heideman said. “Our motto is ‘I never lose, I only learn.’ We learned last year that anything can happen and you just have to go out and play your best, regardless.”
East Ridge will face Minnetonka at 8 a.m. Wednesday in the first of the Class 2A semifinals. The 10 a.m. semifinal will pit No. 2-seeded Rochester Century against No. 3 Mounds View, the defending state champion.
Century’s victory was the second of the day that hinged on a victory at No. 1 doubles. The tandem of Nicholas Aney and Ghanashyam Unnikrishnan defeated Wayzata’s Sam Simon and Denis Kornberg 7-6 (8-6), 6-4, clinching a 4-3 victory over the perennially powerful Trojans.
With only five experienced players returning from Mounds View’s 2015 state championship team, coach Mike Cartwright knew his team had some growing to do if it wanted to repeat. So he didn’t take it easy on the newbies, throwing them into the mix as soon as possible.
“They have to learn somehow,” Cartwright said before the Mustangs’ 6-1 victory over Duluth East. “Winning is not our priority until we get to this time of year. And we still have to play our set schedule.”
Cartwright said his team has improved as he had hoped, but he wouldn’t say by how much. “I’ll know how much better in 36 hours,” he said.
The favorites in the Class 1A field all advanced to Wednesday’s semifinals. Rochester Lourdes defeated Crookston 5-2 and will play Breck, a 7-0 winner over Hibbing, at 8 a.m. at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis. At 10 a.m. Foley, a 6-1 winner over Luverne, will play St. Paul Academy and Summit School, which defeated first-time entrant Columbia Heights 6-1.