On the surface, Nikolay Sahakyan and Jason Shuler were an unlikely pair to win the Conference 1, Section 1 and New York State doubles tennis championships.
Sahakyan is a junior who, although he made the state finals with Luke Smith last spring, missed the first month of the tennis season recovering from a surgery that was unrelated to tennis.
Sahakyan returned to the lineup on May 1 and exactly a month later he was crowned state champion.
Sahakyan won his first two matches at second singles. In the final regular season match on May 9, Sahakyan fell at No. 1 singles to Mamaroneck’s Connor Aylett.
Shuler is a freshman who, with Sahakyan out of the lineup, was thrust into the No. 1 singles spot in his first year on the team.
Shuler lost only twice in the regular season.
“It helped me deal with tight situations,” Shuler said of playing in the pressure-packed top singles spot. “You have a lot of those. You have to win a point or you lose the match. There was a lot of pressure to deal with it and still play my game no matter what.”
Roane couldn’t help but laugh when Sahakyan returned to action and approached Shuler about states: “He went over to Jason and said, ‘Jason, postseason, you, me, doubles, we’re going to make it happen.’ I was like, ‘Does he even know this kid?’”
Sahakyan had the doubles experience from last year and Shuler plays USTA doubles tournaments, so Roane had no qualms about the pairing.
On May 7 Sahakyan and Shuler teamed up to win at first doubles against New Rochelle. The Scarsdale duo also played a few sets against teammates Gus Thompson and Jordan Ziffer, the No. 1 doubles team this season, but other than that they were virtually strangers when they stepped on the court for the postseason.
The getting-to-know-you period didn’t last long.
“After the first few matches of the conferences I figured out what he liked to do and he figured out what I like to do, so by sectionals we had good chemistry going and we were really well prepared for states,” Shuler said.
Sahakyan credited Shuler for being consistent and never missing, which allowed him to also be aggressive and attack the net. The only way Shuler seemed like a freshman to him was that he was quiet. “Tennis-wise he did not lose focus at all,” Sahakyan said.
The tennis wasn’t an issue for Sahakyan and Shuler. “Sometimes we didn’t communicate well and we didn’t do things we talked about doing, but other than that it worked out perfectly,” Sahakyan said.
Sahakyan was able to use last year’s experience of playing Mamo three times to offer his new teammate valuable insight to give them an edge.
“He told me if they do this, they’re going to do that,” Shuler said. “He knew if they hit a deep ball they were probably going to poach, so we were prepared for that. He knew they like to serve and volley, return and volley. He knew their moves and that helped prepare for things I would not have been prepared for.”
Sahakyan and Shuler went 4-0 in the conference draw, including beating Aylett and Charlie Levinson, the defending state champs whom Sahakyan and Smith beat in the conference semifinals last year, but lost to both in the section and state finals. The conference final score was 2-6, 6-1, 10-5 as full third sets didn’t come into play until sectionals.
Four more wins at sectionals, including over Mamo in the finals by a 6-3, 7-6 (3) score, earned Scarsdale the No. 1 seed in the state tournament. Four wins later they were back on the court, Scarsdale vs. Mamo, for the biggest match of the season.
After dropping just five games in the first three rounds of the state tournament, the Raiders were first challenged in the semifinals against the Section 8 champs from Roslyn, Mikey Weitz and Adrian Tsui. The Raiders won the first set 6-1, lost the second 6-4 and it was anyone’s match in the third set as Scarsdale won the tiebreaker 7-3 to advance.
Scarsdale won the first set of the state finals and it was 6-6 in the second set. The Raiders led 6-2 in the seven-point tiebreaker. Roane began to breathe, and then she saw the score creep in Mamaroneck’s favor and Mamo won 9-7 to force a third set.
Sahakyan threw his racket and got called for the infraction, immediately putting the team down 0-15.
“I didn’t have time to be nervous — I had to get these kids going,” Roane said. “You have a freshman who is a little discouraged and Nikolay is mad. It’s all mental now.
“I told them they are going to come out and play a fast-paced game. We’re tight, so I told them to play loose and one point at a time, not to overhit, to move their feet.”
Scarsdale took a 3-0 lead. Soon enough it was 3-2. “No one had to pay, but if they did they definitely got their money’s worth,” Roane said.
Scarsdale held off the late rally in front of a large crowd that came over to watch following the singles final.
“Jason was very consistent — he’s got beautiful strokes — but Nikolay in that third set, his net play, his movement around the net was very, very impressive,” Roane said. “They’d been playing for two hours. And his first match was May 1. In four weeks he was able to train, get in shape and win a state title with a partner he’d just started playing with. It’s really quite unbelievable.”
The first question they asked Roane was, “When is our picture going to be in the trophy case?”
They became the first boys doubles champs from Scarsdale since Austin Kaplan and Ben Fife did it as juniors in 2011 (they had lost in the state finals as sophomores) and the previous time was 1994 when Jason Beckham and Jeff Weiser won. (Note: As a senior, Kaplan made the quarterfinals at states in singles and was named an All-American.)
Last year Smith and Sahakyan beat the Mamo team in the conference semifinals 6-3, 1-6, 11-9, then beat the No. 1 team from Greeley Spencer Lowitz and Kenta Togo of HG 2-6, 7-5, 10-4. In the section finals and the state finals, Mamo beat Scarsdale 6-3, 7-6 (5) and 2-6, 6-1, 6-4, respectively.
This year was different.
“It’s very satisfying winning a state championship for the school,” Sahakyan said. “It feels great beating Mamo. They’re the rival. They were very aggressive at the net. Whenever they came to the net we just lobbed it and got it back into position. If they were aggressive we couldn’t be defensive — we had to be aggressive as well. We had to keep pace with them, but we didn’t rush. That’s what they like to do.”
Shuler hoped to make states and win a championship by the time he graduated. He did not expect most of what transpired this season to happen to him as a freshman. “It was exciting for me and it ended up working out very well,” Shuler said.
Unlike recent years, the tournament was held outdoors at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It’s a much different feeling being on the grounds vs. indoors.
“It’s a different experience when you’re playing inside, even if you’re playing at the tennis center,” Roane said. “If it’s indoors you could be playing anywhere.”
Next year is up in the air for Sahakyan and Shuler, but Shuler indicated he’d like to follow the veteran’s lead. If Sahakyan wants to defend the title, Shuler is on board. If Sahakyan wants to play singles, Shuler would probably do the same. Of course they have plenty of time to figure it out.