SPRINGFIELD >> You could see the frustration building. With each missed shot and every failed opportunity, it looked as if Strath Haven’s Xandy Hammitt and Clay Gaieski were going to explode during the championship match in the District 1 Class 3A doubles tournament at the Healthplex.
Not at the same time, but separately.
One minute Hammitt would appear to be on the brink of losing his cool and a few minutes later Gaieski looked like he wanted to scream.
Yet each time, Hammitt, a senior, and Gaieski, a junior, found a way to maintain their self-control and that discipline powered the duo to the district title with a hard-fought, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-4) victory over Great Valley’s Nikhil Gangioli and Sam Kesti in a match that took more than two hours to complete.
Hammitt chalked it up to experience.
“I was here freshmen year in this tournament so I had the experience to know that we were never out of the match, especially when Clay’s playing pretty well,” said Hammitt, who finished third with Nick Ringle in 2014. “I was playing well, but sometimes the pressure situations got to me. The thing you have to do is stay focused, come back and play one point at a time.”
Hammitt and Gaieski are the first pair from Strath Haven to win the district doubles title since Adam Salam and Forrest Grinstead in 2008. Salam and Grinstead went on to finish fourth in the PIAA Class 3A tournament.
Hammitt and Gaieski are the first duo from Delaware County to win the district doubles crown since Radnor’s Andrew Zhong and Gavin Sudner in 2011. Zhong and Sudner won the PIAA 3A championship that year.
Hammitt and Gaieski begin their quest for a state title when they take on Joel Castillo and Luis Rivas-Cortez of Reading High School, the No. 3 seed out of District 3, in the first round of the PIAA Class 3A tournament at 1:30 p.m. May 26 at the Hershey Racquet Club. The quarterfinals will be held that evening with the semifinals and final and third-place matches scheduled for Saturday.
“I knew that if those two ever teamed up, and Xandy was healthy, they would be really good,” Strath Haven coach T.J. Adams said.
Health has been a concern for Hammitt, who will play tennis at Drexel. He has had a nagging knee injury that forced him to miss several matches early in the season and continues to plague him.
“The doctors don’t know what the problem is,” Hammitt said. “It’s been two months now. Every match, about three or four times, I have this sharp pain.”
Because of the injury Hammitt elected to play doubles in the post season, rather than singles. He and Gaieski are a perfect match, even though they had never played as partners before this year. They both play on the USTA circuit so they have doubles experience. Plus, Hammitt is right-handed and Gaieski is a lefty.
“Xandy has a ton of experience and the classic lefty-righty combination makes it hard for the opponent to figure out our serves,” Gaieski said. “And off the court and on the court we get along very well, so we know how to play well together.”
That communication was key after Hammitt and Gaieski, the third seed in the tournament, upset second-seeded Greg Zlobinsky and Isaac Rockower of Abington, 6-1, 6-4, in the semifinals.
After upsetting top-seeded Bryan Szyana and Danny Katz of Upper Dublin in the semis, 6-7 (3-7), 6-3, 7-5), Gangioli and Kesti, the No. 4 seed, needed a little time to get going in the final. The duo rallied from a 3-1 deficit to take the first set. They continued to show that grit in the second and third sets as they rallied to the point where they nearly had Hammitt and Gaieski on the brink of defeat.
Hammitt and Gaieski never wavered, either. Every time things appeared to be going badly they would take a deep breath, talk and displayed their own resolve, making shot after shot to put Gangioli and Kesti away to win the district title.
The victory by Hammitt and Gaieski capped a great week for the Panthers. Wednesday, Strath Haven knocked off third-seeded Upper Dublin, 3-2, to claim its first berth in the PIAA Class 3A team tournament in 16 years. The reward is a first-round date with District 3 champ Hempfield Tuesday at the Hershey Racquet Club.
“We needed to run the table just to get a wild card bid into the playoffs,” Adams said. “We beat Harriton, 4-3. That was a big match. Then we beat Garnet Valley, which was very good this year, probably the best Garnet Valley team I’ve seen. Then we beat Downingtown East in a nonleague match, 5-2, with a Springfield match, so those were our matches right before the playoffs.
“Even then, we had our fingers crossed heading into the seeding meeting. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were fourth place coming out of the Central League so when we got into the playoffs we knew we were match tough at that point because we had been playing so many playoff-atmosphere matches. And we liked our chances once we got into the playoffs with the five-point format because we knew that matched up against other teams, Our first five courts were really strong.”
It starts with Hammitt at No. 1 singles and Gaieski at second singles.
“Our team, for the first time in a long time, is an actual team,” Hammitt said. “We’re really good around each other.”
“We get along and are good friends,” Gaieski said. “We cheer each other on. Everyone takes it really seriously. No one wants to lose and I think that’s what has pushed us through the last couple of matches that went 3-2 in the playoffs.”
That grit and determination also powered Hammitt and Gaieski to a District 1 doubles title.
“Right from the start we knew we could win this tournament,” Hammitt said. “We just had to play well.”