In early October, CARLOS MARTINEZ- LUCAS and FRANK YANNI battled back from a 4-1 deficit in the finals of the PSAC Doubles Championship to become just the second Millersville team–and the first in more than a decade–to win the tournament. And to think they almost didn’t have the chance to play together. The same resiliency and determination Martinez-Lucas and Yanni used to rally against their Edinboro opponents they used to convince their coach to keep them paired together. One year ago, Martinez-Lucas and Yanni teamed for an 11-2 record and All-PSAC East First Team recognition. But with an influx of new players, Coach Matt Helsel thought it might be best to pair his two most talented and most veteran players with newcomers, giving him more balance to the doubles lineup.
“I talked to them about changing up the teams and trying something fresh,” said Helsel. “They clearly did not want to do that.”
Yanni, the more outspoken of the two players, ardently lobbied on behalf of his doubles team. The players both saw value in Helsel’s perspective. It would be a difficult task to piece together an all-new doubles lineup, trying to evaluate the strengths, playing styles and chemistry of players you’d hardly seen play live. It took some convincing. Yanni argued that instead of building three new teams, keep the top team together to anchor the lineup. Yanni and Martinez-Lucas, best friends off the court, had spent an offseason planning and dreaming of the potential success that awaited in 2021-22. They wanted a chance to make it a reality.
“Carlos and I are very close off the court, too,” said Yanni. “We had goals set and an unspoken goal to win PSACs. When coach came to us about splitting us, it was a firm ‘no’. We wanted to be open to his idea, and we understood where he was coming from, but we believed in keeping the team together.”
“Coach brought it up at the first practice,” said Martinez-Lucas. “Frank and I are friends. We did a good job last year, and we believed that we could do even better this year. Coach believed in us and trusted us.”
The trust was rewarded. The duo went 3-0 at the PSAC Championships and closed the fall season with a 7-2 record that included a win over a team from Division I Bucknell.
“After the [championship] match, Carlos said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to break us up, coach?’ At this point, we definitely don’t,” said Helsel.
In doubles tennis, trust is crucial to success. Not only must players complement each other with their skill sets, they must believe that their teammate will be where he is supposed to be on the court and hit the ball
where he is supposed to hit it. There are synchronous movements, and there must be confident anticipation. A close friendship and playing against each other every day in singles practice for two years builds that
“Chemistry in doubles is key,” said Yanni. “I’m always at his house. We get each other on a friendship level, and we respect each other as tennis players. He knows where I’m hitting before I even hit it.”
“We play a high-risk, high-reward brand of doubles,” said Helsel. “We take a lot of chances with the expectation that if we dictate, we will win more battles than we lose than if we play reactionary tennis. One of the keys to that style of play is commitment. Commitment to shots and plays, putting yourself in harm’s way. If you don’t do it with conviction, you might as well not do it. These guys are committed to each other, they believe in each other, they have 100 percent complete trust in each other, and when they demonstrated that with their words, that spoke volumes to me. When you pick doubles teams, you try to pair complementary styles and skill levels, but
there is no substitute for having belief in your partner. If that was at that high of a level, I wasn’t going to mess with that.”
A friendly rivalry between Martinez-Lucas and Yanni had existed since they both joined the program in 2018-19. It was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when their friendship grew. Travel restrictions prohibited Martinez-Lucas from returning to his home country of Spain. Yanni elected to stay in his Millersville apartment to keep family back home safe. With campus shut down and the sports season canceled, the players were isolated and leaned on each other. They followed the pandemic with a brilliant 2021 spring season that included a win over Division I La Salle.
Martinez-Lucas and Yanni are examples of opposites working well together. In singles, Martinez-Lucas is a grinder. He outlasts opponents with his stamina and doggedness. He doesn’t beat himself. Yanni, on the other hand, is explosive and aggressive, looking to hit winners with every stroke. Surprisingly, the styles work well together. And they’ve learned from each other, which has helped them grow as players.
“Since I’ve been playing with him, I’ve learned a lot from him and tried to implement some of his style into my game. He takes some of my style and adds it to his game,” said Yanni. “Playing together has helped us become more three-dimensional players. In doubles, he’s our base. He gets to a lot of balls and keeps it in play. I’m more of the attacker. I’m loud and can be obnoxious. Carlos has had to get louder to keep up.”
Opposites on the court, the two share a common goal, and that is to improve Millersville tennis and make it a destination program in the Division II ranks. The two arrived on campus at the dawn of a massive rebuild.
Helsel inherited a team that had lost 17 consecutive PSAC matches, and his first two teams went a combined 3-32. Martinez-Lucas and Yanni put the rebuild into overdrive, and the team has qualified
for the PSAC Tournament each season since. Martinez-Lucas, the team’s No. 1 player from day one, is building a hall of fame resume with his 2019 PSAC Athlete of the Year award and sterling .712 singles winning percentage
against the stiffest competition the region has to offer. Yanni has provided a winning record each season as one of the top two players in the lineup. Their competitive success has elevated the program, and the doubles championship is a sign that Millersville tennis is back on the map. That’s the accomplishment of which Martinez-Lucas is most proud.
“Coming from Spain, Millersville is giving me the opportunity to study in this country,” said Martinez-Lucas. “The only thing that I can do is to try to win for Millersville. Millersville has given me my degree, my friends. I’m very proud to be a part of the history of Millersville. This year we have a very good team and excellent new players. We are at a point where people are doing what [Yanni and I] did in trying to win matches, change a loser’s mentality to a winner’s mentality and improve the program.”
In Helsel’s first years on the job, a coach from a rival PSAC school made a not-so-veiled comment to him about none of his players making it past the first day of the PSAC Championships. That remark came back to Helsel as he hoisted the championship trophy with Martinez-Lucas and Yanni. The hardware was well-earned, as the Marauder tandem scratched from behind with their trademarked resiliency and determination after being
overwhelmed early in the match by the power-hitting Rocco Palombarini and Bruno Sabio of Edinboro.
“Doubles is one of those things where you play one set, and if you have a slow start in doubles and you get behind, you are in trouble,” said Helsel. “It’s very hard to break serve with two players on the court. If a team is up 4-1, they only need to hold serve a couple more times to win. Quite frankly, I thought we were in big trouble. Our opponents were very tough, two newcomers, both big guys with big serves bringing a lot of firepower.”
After dropping four of the first five games, Martinez-Lucas and Yanni met with Helsel to rethink their strategy. They focused on holding serve, taking away the deadly backhand of Sabio, keeping the ball in play and extending rallies. “[Martinez-Lucas and Yanni] certainly did not give up or lose track of winning the whole thing,” said Helsel.
With Yanni serving, the Marauders won a game to bring the score to 4-2 and then broke the Fighting Scots’ serve in the very next game. The duo then evened the score at 4-4, and they noticed a change in their
opponents. “When good teams see that you don’t back down, they start to question why,” said Helsel. “They think ‘what are these guys seeing about me that makes them not quit?’ We saw that because the one
player really started to struggle, missing some shots. We saw an opening and took advantage.”
“We weren’t panicking,” said Yanni. “The moment I knew we’d win was when we tied it, and they were serving. They had a double fault. The player changed his racquet and had another double fault. Carlos and I looked at each other and said, ‘They don’t want it. They are nervous.’” Martinez-Lucas and Yanni incredibly won six of seven games before Edinboro won a game to tighten the match at 7-6. The serve was in the hands of Martinez-Lucas, however, and on match point, the return volley from Edinboro sailed long, clinching the championship for Millersville. “I had goosebumps the whole time,” said Helsel. “They played as if they had done it a million times.”
“We went in confident, we trusted each other, played well and the victory came,” said Martinez-Lucas. Martinez-Lucas speaks of leaving a legacy at Millersville. He’ll be glad to know that the plaques he and his best friend won will be on display in the Anttonen Lobby trophy case for years to come. And if he and Yanni have their way, more trophies will follow.
“We’ve got some bigger goals in sight,” said Helsel. “As much as it is awesome, our goal as a team has never been individual achievements. We don’t want to lose sight of the bigger prizes that may be ahead. But it is a great indicator of where we were and from where we’ve come.”