Many agree CIAC Invitational for state's boys tennis players was success

The numbers don’t lie.

All 24 singles players who qualified for the first CIAC Boys Tennis Invitational accepted the challenge, a remarkable number considering there is typically a scramble to fill all the spots for the State Open in most years.

Jim Solomon, who has coached boys tennis at Hall since 1975 and was the Invitational tournament director, said there is a logical explanation for that response.

“Kids were eager to play and this definitely showcased the best players in the state,” Solomon said. “I’ve coached for 47 years now and I thought this group was about as enthusiastic as any group I’ve ever had. They were just happy to be out there and that was true of the tournament as well.”

The Invitational, played at the Wesleyan University courts in Middletown, followed the class tournaments, which this season used a head-to-head team format, a switch from the jamboree-style format which had been used in the past. The postseason changes were made in January, when COVID numbers were still relatively high and vaccines were still not available to many people.

“We were working with a moving target,” Solomon said.

Where the tournaments go from here will be a decision made by the committee during the upcoming school year.

Tennis coaches have been surveyed about the team format for class tournaments three times during the past 15 seasons, Solomon said, and each time the individual format was favored by a three-to-one margin.

Now, coaches have seen the differences played out.

“Because we were forced into this, now we’ve got a laboratory and people have tried it,” Solomon, who is on the CIAC’s boys tennis committee, said. “They can weigh in on (what they think). Most coaches liked it. We’re expressing the will of the coaches, so it’s imperative that we get feedback and we survey and canvas coaches again. Now that they’ve seen it and how it can work, what’s the response?”

The change to the class tournaments may have actually helped the Invitational, which became the only individual showcase of the postseason. This led to more elite players wanting to take part.

“This year it was more encompassing,” boys tennis committee chair John Keogh said. “If you win as an individual in singles or a team in doubles in your class tournament, the State Open is kind of anti-climactic. It’s a long season and the state class tournament is so intense, many of the best players weren’t as interested in the Open.

“For the Invitational, we got all the top kids.”

Open qualifiers were singles players who reached their state class semifinals, and doubles teams which reached the finals.

In choosing singles players and doubles teams for the Invitational, coaches provided nominations, and the committee considered several factors, including won-loss record and strength of schedule. Those were balanced with getting representation from different conferences and regions.

“The challenge was to balance in terms of leagues, regions, size of schools, and all that stuff, so we didn’t end up with just an FCIAC tournament or anything like that,” Solomon said. “As tournament director, I tracked matches all year long — how they did and how they competed against each other.”

In singles, Staples’ Tighe Brunetti, who was unbeaten, was the No. 1 seed, followed by Norwalk’s Prem Dave at No. 2, Daniel Hand’s Joshua Israel at No. 3, and Warde’s Petro Kuzmenok at No. 4.

“We seeded it based on what we thought was accurate and therefore you got a fair draw,” Keogh said. “We were able to do that because even though there were kids with better records, we knew that those were definitely the best players and there was a drop off after that. And we got that right.”

Three of the top four seeds reached the semifinals, with No. 6 seed Matt Fuffo of Xavier joining that group.

Kuzmenok, the fourth seed and a sophomore, was the tournament champion after defeating Brunetti 5-7, 7-6 (5), 14-12 in the semifinals, and Dave 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 in the final.

In doubles, the top four seeds all made the semifinals, with the No. 1 tandem of Bradley Sheppard and Luke Brodsky of Staples defeating No. 2 Reilly Vejar and William DeChabert of Daniel Hand 7-5, 6-1 for the championship.

The level of competition and the eagerness of players to play in the Invitational could factor into what decisions are made for the future.

“We had enough players in there, everyone reasonably had a chance, and we were able to honor kids from all over the state,” Keogh said. “As we think about what we’re going to do next year, we really liked the Invitational. That was the best thing that happened this year.”

david.stewart; @dstewartsports