COLUMBIA, S.C. -- With four straight-set wins in singles, the Tennessee men's tennis team rallied from the brink with a 4-3 victory over Auburn to start the SEC Tournament on Wednesday. The Vols (12-16) lost the doubles point and trailed 3-0 after losing two early singles matches. Though the scoreboard showed the Vols on the edge of defeat, Tennessee had won the first set in the four remaining matches and quickly closed them all out in straight-set fashion.
Freshman Jack Heslin got the Vols on the board with a win on court 6, and sophomores Luis Valero and Igor Smelyanski followed with ranked victories on courts 1 and 2 to tie the match at 3-3. Freshman Timo Stodder sealed the match with a 7-5, 6-2 win over Conner Huertas on court 3, the first deciding win for the UT freshman.
The Vols play Kentucky on Thursday at 2 p.m. in the second round.
Valero led the Vols at the top of the lineup throughout the match, scoring a victory with Jack Schipanski 6-4 at No. 1 doubles and then beating No. 75 Marko Krickovic 6-3, 6-2 in singles. He had lost to Krickovic last week in a 6-1 team loss at Auburn (12-14).
"Luis provided tremendous leadership, winning doubles and singles on court 1," Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "He just really led us. You can just see the confidence oozing out of him right now. He's playing at a high level."
Auburn seized the doubles point with late rallies for 7-5 wins on courts 2 and 3 to put the Vols in a 1-0 hole heading into singles. The Tigers built their lead to 3-0 when Dante Sale beat Srjdan Jakovljevic 6-3, 6-0 on court 4 and Brandon Laubser defeated Jack Schipanski 6-3, 6-1.
The Vols were down but in line for straight-set victories of their own, starting with Heslin's 6-2, 6-3 win over Joseph Van Dooren at the bottom of the lineup. Valero followed minutes later with his victory on court 1.
Smelyanski, who has been out with a leg injury most of the spring, made his singles return last week against Florida and on Wednesday recorded his first win since January. He defeated No. 99 Maxime Hinnisdaels 7-6(1), 6-1, on court 2 to tie the score at 3-3.
"It's really good to have Igor back in the lineup," Winterbotham said. "It makes us a better team. I think that made a big difference for us today."
That left Stodder the last Vol in action on court 3. He was broken serving for the match at 5-0 in the second set but made good on his second attempt, beating Huertas to send the Vols into the second round.
"I'm really proud of Timo," Winterbotham said. "Timo's a very good player, but he's a freshman and hasn't been in this situation before. I thought he handled the match very well and finished strong."
Tennessee 4, Alabama 3 Singles 1. #67 Luis Valero (UT) def. #75 Marko Krickovic (AU) 6-3, 6-2 2. Igor Smelyanski (UT) def. #99 Maxime Hinnisdaels (AU) 7-6 (7-1), 6-1 3. Timo Stodder (UT) def. C. Huertas del Pino (AU) 7-5, 6-2 4. Dante Saleh (AU) def. Srdjan Jakoljevic (UT) 6-3, 6-0 5. Brandon Laubser (AU) def. Jack Schipanski (UT) 6-3, 6-1 6. Jack Heslin (UT) def. Olle Thestrup (AU) 6-2, 6-3
Doubles 1. #23 Jack Schipanski/Luis Valero (UT) def. #37 Marko Krickovic/Edward Nguyen (AU), 6-4 2. Maxime Hinnisdaels/Brandon Laubser (AU) def. Igor Smelyanski/Jack Heslin (UT) 7-5 3. Dante Saleh/C. Huertas del Pino (AU) def. Srdjan Jakoljevic/Timo Stodder (UT) 7-5
Order of finish: Doubles (1,3,2); Singles (4,5,6,1,2,3).