Jai Aslam of Belgrade set a fairly simple tennis goal this summer.

Before embarking on a five-year doctorate program in mathematics at North Carolina State, Aslam hoped to “get a runner-up” in one of the big Maine Tennis Association tournaments.

He surpassed that goal on Sunday by winning the state’s biggest tournament – the 29th annual Betty Blakeman Memorial Tournament – and becoming the first unseeded player ever to do so.

“He played better than I’ve ever seen him play,” said longtime tournament director Don Atkinson, who said Aslam would have been a ninth seed had more than eight men been seeded in the field of 75. “I’ve always considered him a very good player, but this was his weekend. He was just totally right on.”

Neither Atkinson nor Eric Blakeman, son of the tournament’s namesake, said he could remember a Blakeman men’s champion emerging from other than the top five seeds. (Curran Burfeind of Falmouth was unseeded when she won the 2002 Blakeman women’s title at age 41.) That Aslam became the first unseeded men’s champ was a surprise to everyone, including himself.

“I expected to get to Sunday in the doubles,” Aslam, 22, said Monday during a break from teaching tennis at the Midcoast Recreation Center in Rockland. “But in the singles, I thought I would for sure go out around the quarterfinals.”

In five previous years at the Blakeman, Aslam never advanced beyond the round of 16.

That also was as far as he advanced in three attempts at the Maine Principals’ Association singles tournament while at Messalonskee High School. As a Messalonskee freshman, Aslam wasn’t good enough to make the starting lineup.

“I only played like three varsity matches because some of the higher players were injured,” he said.

At Northeastern University, Aslam played club tennis while pursuing a double major in math and computer science. He continued to play in Maine Tennis Association events each summer, occasionally winning smaller tournaments, he said, “when the draws were kind of depleted.”

Aslam needed to win six matches from Friday through Sunday to claim the Blakeman crown. He beat Clay Canterbury of Freeport, Zach Disch of Waterville and Ted Hall of Cape Elizabeth in straight sets to reach the quarterfinals before dispatching the tournament’s three top seeds in succession.

Late Saturday night at Yarmouth High, Aslam rallied past No. 2 Dariy Vykhodtsev – a rising senior at Thornton Academy in Saco – by 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 after trailing by a break in the second set. Earlier this month in the MTA Championship semifinals at the Waynflete courts in Portland, Vykhodtsev had beaten Aslam 6-1, 6-2 on the way to winning the tournament.

“That was a scary moment for sure but I was able to come through that,” Aslam said of being on the verge of elimination Saturday. “I started reading his serve a little bit better. Then I could get into some points and I did better in the longer rallies.”

Moving indoors to the Racket & Fitness Center Sunday because of rain, Aslam prepared for a semifinal against Sam Leeman of Bath, the third seed who played four years at the University of Rochester. Before playing each other, Aslam and Leeman teamed up in doubles for a quarterfinal victory that required a third-set tiebreaker over the father-son Vermont team of Brad and Jackson Watson.

“We barely won in three, then we had to go out and play each other in singles,” said Aslam, who grinded out a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 decision. “We’re really good friends and in all our practice matches, I hadn’t beaten him in over a year, so I was really surprised to win that.”

Until Leeman cramped up late in the third set, Aslam said “the match was a complete battle back and forth. Sam just doesn’t give up.”

An hour later, Aslam found himself breaking serve in the first game of the singles finals against top-seeded Tyler Adams, the 2014 Blakeman champion from Buxton who is now a teaching pro at The Woodlands Club in Falmouth. Aslam had extended Adams in a 6-4, 6-4 match during the latter’s championship run in 2014 but otherwise had barely won more than a game the two or three times they’ve played.

“Going into it, I was so tired,” Aslam said. “I thought, ‘I might get thrashed here.’ But then I broke in the first game and thought, ‘Maybe I have a chance.’ ”

Aslam held serve and broke again to go ahead 3-0. Adams fought back to 3-2 before Aslam won eight of the next nine games and emerged with a 6-2, 6-2 victory.

“He was confident with everything he did out there,” said Adams, who played at Bonny Eagle and the University of Southern Maine. “He has such a steady game. I had to come up with the goods and, unfortunately, I didn’t have it. Credit him. When it got tight, he won all the big points.”

“I guess there wasn’t any pressure for me,” Aslam said. “I just relaxed because I had already made my goal.”

Eric Blakeman said the tournament – which includes four singles and five doubles brackets for various ages and genders – attracted 192 players and raised roughly $25,000 for the Dempsey Center, which recently merged with longtime beneficiary Cancer Community Center. Matches took place at six outdoor sites Friday and Saturday before moving inside Sunday.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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