The 51st edition of the Mississippi Valley Open delivered some high-level tennis with an international flair in the singles finals on Sunday.
Former Drake University stars Vinny Gillespie and Jean Erasmus clashed in the men’s title match, while former University of Iowa standouts Milica Veselinovic and Montana Crawford met in the women’s final at Dubuque Golf & Country Club.
While Gillespie and Crawford graduated just two months ago, and Erasmus and Veselinovic capped their careers years ago, all proved they have plenty left in the tank moving forward.
“I’ve got a goal to continue to play, so I came here,” said Gillespie, a Scotland native who was impressive in a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Erasmus. “This is my first tournament, really.”
Gillespie just capped a stellar career with the Bulldogs, who recruited him after winning the British Junior Nationals. He played three years at No. 1 for Drake and was ranked as high as No. 57 nationally in singles and No. 27 in doubles during his time with the program.
“Every school you play against is a tough match,” Gillespie said. “There’s never easy matches you can cruise through. It’s always a tough match, every week is tough. It definitely improved me as a player.”
Gillespie joins the growing list of Drake talent to win the men’s open at the MVO, including Ben Wood last year, Danny Manlow in 2015 and Anis Ghorbel in 2013. He also takes home the $800 prize money.
“The money is nice. The money helps a lot,” he said.
Erasmus gave Gillespie all he could handle, battling through intense shot after intense shot. Born in South Africa and raised in Namibia, Erasmus also came to the states to play at Drake and graduated in 2014, playing mostly the No. 3 through 5 positions in the Bulldogs’ lineup.
“This provided a good opportunity for me to come and show what I’ve got against younger talent,” said Erasmus, who lives near Chicago and was told about the tournament by his co-worker, 2017 MVO singles champ Chi-Shan Jao. “Vinny’s a really good player and he just knew how to dig in to my weaknesses and there wasn’t much I could do about that. I knew I had to play really good percentage tennis and I didn’t at the end of the day. I felt a lot of pressure to come up with a lot of big shots and forced a lot. Made too many mistakes and he just played too solid for me.”
Erasmus has a career high ATP doubles ranking of 1,124, achieved in 2011, and he’s represented Namibia at the Davis Cup, where he holds a win-loss record of 17-19.
“He graduated a few years before me, so I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Gillespie said. “When I saw he came in as the first seed I was pretty worried, actually. I thought he was going to take it. But it was a good match, I played well. He’s got a good serve and a really good backhand. He kind of pinned me on my backhand side a lot, so I had to mix it up and use my slice so I could run around and use my forehand.”
Veselinovic won her second straight MVO singles title and $600 prize by outlasting Crawford, 6-2, 6-3, in the meeting of former Hawkeyes. It was Veselinovic’s toughest match of the tournament, having lost only one game before the final.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Veselinovic said. “I know Montana played for Iowa for four years, too, and she was good. She had a good serve and I didn’t feel my best, but I just kind of found my way to win.”
A native of Serbia, Veselinovic graduated from Iowa in 2008 as one of the best women’s tennis players in program history. During her tenure (2005-08), Veselinovic set Iowa records for career singles wins (131) and overall career singles record (113-27). She also posted a season-best 31 victories her freshman year.
“I just had a really great time playing for Iowa,” she said. “Pretty much never missed a match and have some records there left behind me. It was just a really great experience.”
Crawford is from Rockwood, Ontario, Canada, and also came to the states to play for the Hawkeyes. She just graduated after playing at the 3 through 6 positions in the Iowa lineup, and is set to become the music orchestra director at Pella Community Schools this fall.
“The final match was a big battle against myself,” Crawford said. “Unfortunately, I beat myself a lot in that match. It was really fun to play Milica because I’ve never played her before. She’s a good player. I started to chip away a little more in the second set. In the middle of that it was just so hot and I ended up beating myself.”
Now 34, Veselinovic still lives in Iowa City and works as a tennis programmer for the U of I recreation services. She’s a big fan of the MVO and plans to return next summer to try for a three-peat, but she could very well have to deal with Crawford in a championship rematch.
“I played this tournament a long time ago, around 2009 right when I finished college,” Veselinovic said. “I think I played four or five times and had a really, really great time meeting so many wonderful people and families here. It’s just always fun to come back and I will definitely come back next year.”
Crawford added, “I’m definitely looking to come back next year.”
• Dubuque’s Luke Less and John Ottavi captured the men’s 45 doubles championship over Daniel Ellard, of Bettendorf, and James Moldenhauer, of Reno, Nev., with a 1-6, 7-6 (5), 10-7 rally in the final.
• Hempstead girls tennis coach Sara Loetscher and Iowa City’s Kay Dileo won the women’s 35 doubles crown with a 6-2, 7-5 triumph over Charleston, S.C., natives Alice Kryder and Martha Lee.