For much of their lives, Handley’s Nick Mueller and Jack Volinsky have been hitting tennis balls together.
And it was together, that both of them joined some of the Judges’ greats in winning a state title.
After knocking off the defending state champs in the semifinals, Mueller and Volinsky breezed through the title match whipping Hanover’s Ross Violi and Ethan Belote 6-0, 6-0 in the Class 4 doubles championship at the Sun Tennis Center in Roanoke.
The triumph was the first individual title for the two players, who had made the Class 4 doubles semifinals together as sophomores. With Mueller away in Florida last season, Volinsky also made the state doubles semifinals with Mercer Love.
This season, Mueller, a state singles semifinalist, and Volinsky have been dominating on the path to a title made special by the achievement together.
“We’ve been hitting together through middle school and high school,” Volinsky said in a phone interview minutes after winning the crown. “It’s really special that we both get to get this moment.”
“It’s even more special than an individual [singles] title because we’ve been hitting with each other for so long and playing doubles together for so long,” Mueller said.
To get the elusive title together, the Handley duo had to knock off Blacksburg’s Frank Thompson and Ruhan Prasad, the defending champions.
Like Thursday’s state singles semifinals in which Mueller fell in three sets to Thompson, everyone knew the winner between the Handley and Blacksburg duos was going to be a heavy favorite to win the title.
“The semifinal match was tough,” Volinsky said. “We came in knowing it was going to be close.”
Mueller and Volinsky got off to a blazing start, rocketing through the first set 6-2.
“We played really well the first set,” Volinsky said. “We were both just on our games.”
“We came out of the gates playing really well,” Mueller added. “We had them on the ropes in the first set.”
But the defending champs, led by Thompson, rallied in the second set to square the match after a 6-4 triumph.
“In the second set, Frank made a really good run,” Volinsky said. “He was hitting all of his shots and making it complicated and competitive.”
“We had an early break and they rallied and Frank started to play better,” Mueller said. “They mixed it up and started to do odd formations. It threw us a little bit.”
But the Handley duo solved the formation problem and played an excellent third set.
“We came out with more intensity,” Mueller said. “We figured out what to do with the ‘I’ [formation] and we were able to break [Prasad’s] serve twice and then serve it out.
“In the third set, Nick and I just dialed back in,” Volinsky added. “We had a new mindset. We were like, ‘Frank will make some really good shots, but we’ve got to be OK with moving forward and focusing on the next one.’”
The Blacksburg duo didn’t go away quietly in the final game, but Volinsky came up with some critical serves against Thompson, the two-time state singles champ.
“Jack saved three break points in the final game,” Mueller said. “He had three almost aces on Frank which was big to close it out.
“Obviously they are a great team and are tough to beat. Yeah, it makes it more special that we were able to come through and knock off the defending state champs.”
After all of that drama, the Judges cruised in the title match. Violi and Belote, who defeated Jamestown’s Jordan Deberry and Aaron Squire 7-6, 2-6, 6-4 in the other semifinal, ran into a buzz saw.
Volinsky said he and Mueller didn’t go into the match overconfident.
“We knew how good they were,” Volinsky said. “We kind of took it as ‘last doubles match together. Let’s keep on our games and stay focused.’ I get nervous for everything. So I was a little bit nervous. It was fine. The kids were really nice and we came through.”
The Hanover pair could not win a game as Mueller and Volinsky rolled to the quick win.
“We played really well,” Mueller said. “They weren’t quite as strong as Frank and Ruhan, obviously. We just played great doubles and executed perfectly.”
Aside from execution, Volinsky said what makes his pairing with Mueller so successful (just two losses together throughout their doubles career) is their approach.
“I think it’s because we take everything pretty lightly,” Volinsky said. “We joke around, but when it comes down to it we are really focused. We have a good ability that when someone misses a shot or something bad happens to us we both say ‘my bad.’ It’s mutual where we don’t blame one another. We just focus on the next point, the next point. We’re both pretty forward in our mind-set. I think that plays a big part.”
Mueller and Volinsky will be at the top of the Judges lineup as they face Hanover for the Class 4 team title today at 4 p.m. at Virginia Tech’s Burrows-Burleson Indoor Complex.
The two Judges both said Friday’s doubles title, witnessed by their teammates, has them pumped to bring home the Judges’ ninth state team crown.
“I think it gave us a lot of confidence,” Volinsky said. “All of the kids got to see us win and got to see us play in the state championship. I think it was really good for everyone to gain some confidence going into the next match.”
“Obviously, it’s great for our confidence but we are not taking it lightly at all,” Mueller said of the title matchup. “We are definitely taking it seriously and looking forward to a challenge.”
Winning a team title would be the perfect ending for two seniors, who certainly enjoyed what they accomplished together in doubles on Friday.
“It feels great,” Mueller said. “It’s something we’ve been working for since we were little. It’s a dream come true, so it feels good.”
“It feels really good,” Volinsky echoed. “All I can say is it finally happened. Everything clicked. We both trained hard. I don’t think there are any words to describe it. It’s just like, ‘Finally, we got it.’”