TAMPA — His teammates had to carry Rohit Navelkar to a cart that trucked him across Hunter’s Green to get him to the court to play doubles.
Afterward, they looked ready to carry him off on their shoulders.
After surviving cramps that left him unable to walk after a stirring comeback in his four-hour singles match, Navelkar teamed with Ben Hwang at No. 1 doubles in the thrilling and decisive victory to lead Wharton over Plant 4-3 and back to the Class 4A state tournament.
It is the third time in four years Wharton has beaten Plant in the region final, and this one was the most painful of all as the Panthers got wins at Nos. 4 and 5 singles, but couldn’t win at Nos. 2 and 3 despite going up a set.
“Plant was unfortunate to draw us, or they’d be going to state,” said Hwang, who beat Tristan Kaye 6-4, 6-1 at No. 1 singles. “It’s been that way three years now. I would hate us if I were Plant.”
The Wildcats, the defending Class 4A champ and the 3A champ in 2007 and ’08, survived thanks to Navelkar at No. 2 singles and freshman Sam Chaffin at No. 3, both dropping their first sets before coming back to score victories and give Wharton the 3-2 lead heading into doubles.
Navelkar dropped his first set 6-2 to Plant’s Brenton D’Adamo then won the second in a tiebreaker (7-5) before falling behind the third 4-1.
But he won the last five games, and was a little fortunate to do so. Just as he began cramping, D’Adamo was double faulting four times to give Navelkar all the points he needed to close out the set.
Chaffin rallied to beat Mike Secular 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.
Needing only one doubles win, Navelkar and Hwang (a winner at No. 1 singles) trailed 5-4 and 40-15 before rallying to force a first set tiebreaker they won 7-5. They went on to win the second set 6-1.
“This was as hard as we’ve had it,” said Navelkar, a senior. “The last three years, it’s never been this close.”