NEW YORK — Minutes away from a dream.
Texas tennis star Eliot Spizzirri was so, so close to fulfilling a lifelong goal this weekend: qualifying for the main draw of the U.S. Open here at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
On Saturday afternoon, on a steamy Court 5, Spizzirri was all set to do it: He had his dad, Peter, and a whole host of family and friends from his nearby hometown of Greenwich, Conn., surrounding the court and whooping and hollering with every good shot he hit against fellow American Emilio Nava.
Spizzirri had rebounded from losing the first set 6-3 by taking the second by the same score, and he had just broken serve at love in the opening game of the third set. In just a few more games, the Longhorns’ star could win his final qualifying match and get dropped into the 128-person main draw of the Open, which begins Monday.
But something was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Spizzirri took a break after winning the second set to go to the bathroom and change clothes, and immediately in the next game, the 21-year-old All-American who finished the season ranked No.1 by the NCAA started bending over, trying to catch his breath between points. A few minutes later, he asked the chair umpire to call a doctor, and Spizzirri took a medical timeout.
Finally, trailing 3-1 in the final set, he walked up to the net to shake Nava’s hand to indicate he was retiring. Battling heat exhaustion that left him feeling awful, Spizzirri lost the match.
“My body completely shut down,” Spizzirri said. “Earlier in the match I felt my shoulders and neck get heavy, and that’s the first sign of heat exhaustion. I knew it was only a matter of time before it was going to get worse. I’ve had it before, but not to this extent. Your neck feels really heavy and you can’t pick your shoulders up, then I was getting dizzy and nauseous, and I was having trouble seeing the ball, and then cramping in my legs and hands.
“You’re trying to fight, to buy time, get some ice. But it’s really hard to win against these guys when you’re not 100%.”
Spizzirri added that even after the medical timeout, he knew he was just about done. And on the last point, “I didn’t even see the ball go past me,” he said. “I think if I played one more point, I would’ve passed out.”
Spizzirri didn’t quite achieve his dream of making the U.S. Open, but he has still had a sensational tennis year. This spring at Texas, he went 36-5 in singles and 28-14 in doubles and reached the singles quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament in May.
“He was as close to perfect as you could be for us this year,” Texas head coach Bruce Berque said. “To be No.1 in the country and win every MVP award he was up for, it shows you how much improvement he’s made and how solid he was for us.”
Peter Spizzirri said a host of friends from the Round Hill Club in Greenwich, where Eliot learned the game, were at all his matches during the week and that watching his son play on courts they used to only visit as fans “meant everything.”
“We grew up coming here when he and his twin brother (Nick) were really little, and getting autographs from the players and all that,” Peter Spizzirri said. “To see him on the courts playing, it’s really special. And if he doesn’t make it (into the Open) this year, he’ll make it soon.”
A good week spoiled
Spizzirri started off strong in the qualifying draw, where 64 players competed for 16 slots in the main draw. He dispatched Italy’s Matteo Gigante 6-4, 6-7, 7-1 in the first round, then avenged a 2021 NCAA Tournament loss to former Illinois standout Aleksandar Kovacevic with a convincing 6-4, 6-4 triumph on Friday, after rain delayed the match by a day.
After that victory, Spizzirri reflected on how far he’s come.
“I would come here and watch Roger (Federer) and I’d come to free qualies week and get autographs like all these kids are doing now,” he said Saturday with a smile. “You take a minute and look around and it feels really cool.”
What’s next: looking for more success at Texas
Spizzirri said his success at UT has come thanks to hard work and serious coaching from Berque and his staff.
“I had some injuries I had to work through but a lot of sacrifice, and the coaches investing a lot in me, has been a huge help,” he said. “I love the team tennis atmosphere and I love the school.”
For Berque, the big step forward for Spizzirri was on the forehand side.
“It’s become a legit weapon for him, where it wasn’t as much before,” he said. “He’s also now gotten much stronger in his mindset; he’s not getting down on himself when things weren’t going well.”
Even though Spizzirri’s U.S. Open dream fell short this year, he still has a senior year to look forward to as he tries to help Texas win a national title, and he gained valuable lessons during the week.
“I proved to myself that I can hang at this level; beating two guys ranked inside the top 170 shows the work I’m putting in is paying off,” Spizzirri said. “I’m progressing and my game is improving, and I’m learning what my weaknesses are that opponents are going to exploit. It’s a huge confidence booster for me.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas tennis star Eliot Spizzirri retires from U.S. Open qualifying