Americans vie for NCAA titles

May 30, 2011 12:17 PM
Steve Johnson is the first player to win the NCAA team and singles titles in the same year since 2004.
By Colette Lewis, special to

Stanford, Calif. -- It's not often a NCAA semifinal match that’s decided in a third set tiebreaker gets overshadowed, especially if the contestants are two Bay area players, one on her home courts. 
But Cal-Berkeley's Jana Juricova, who is returning to the finals for the second consecutive year after a 6-7(5), 7-5, 7-6(2) victory over unseeded Stanford freshman Nicole Gibbs, wasn't the story. 
Nor was the all-Tennessee semifinal between best friends and roommates Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren, which Williams won 6-3, 3-6, 6-0. Even Stanford's Stacey Tan was an afterthought, despite her improbable run to he final as an unheralded sophomore playing at the No. 5 position most of the year. Tan advanced to the women's final when Florida's Lauren Embree, the heroine of the team event, was forced to retire with a foot injury at 5-7, 6-3.
Yet for all that drama, the fans, coaches, players and volunteers at the Taube Family Tennis Center were talking about only one thing late Sunday afternoon-- the University of Virginia's Michael Shabaz, who abruptly retired after a point penalty down 7-6(4), 4-2 in his semifinal match with top seed Steve Johnson of Southern California.
From the time the chair umpire overruled a line judge to save a set point for Johnson at 5-6, Shabaz, the No. 3 seed, was unhappy. When the chair failed to correct a Johnson serve called good at 6-4 in the tiebreaker, Shabaz spent the set break arguing his position. 
The second set started as the first had, with no break points and easy holds through the first five games. Serving at 2-3, 30-15, Shabaz hit a forehand wide, and on the next point Johnson came up with an audacious dipping cross court pass to make it 30-40. Shabaz missed his first serve, and as the ball came back to him he swatted at it, with some anger but not any visible emotion. 
Unfortunately for him, the ball left the stadium, and the chair called out point penalty, unsportsmanlike conduct, game Johnson. As both players walked to the bench, Shabaz approached Johnson and shook his hand, while Virginia head coach Brian Boland, who was watching from the stands, could be heard to shout, "No, Shaz, No." 
Shabaz put his racquet in his bag and walked off the court, while all 1500 fans, who had been treated to an extremely high-quality display of tennis to that point, sat in stunned silence.
"I'm not sure what happened," said Johnson. "He was just done. After the point penalty, hitting it out of the stadium, he just called it quits. I've never had that happen in a match in my life. He's a tough competitor, I'm just kind of confused about what happened."
Johnson was hardly the only one.
"I'm speechless," said USC head coach Peter Smith, who said he had never seen a match end that way in his over 20 years of collegiate coaching. "I actually feel sorry for all those involved. Michael is a way better person than that, and that program's a way better program than that. There were some missed calls, but that's tennis, if you've got umpires or not. I've got a lot of text messages asking me what just happened."
Cavalier head coach Boland also described himself as speechless, but went on to elaborate on his disappointment with the 23-year-old senior from Fairfax, Virginia.
"I would probably consider that the lowest point in my 15 years as a head coach," said Boland. "I'm in shock." 
Asked if he shared Shabaz's frustration with the chair umpire, Boland was blunt.
"You are never justified in quitting a tennis match, under any circumstances, no matter what the adversity," said Boland. "Whether we agree or disagree with the line calls, whether we're having the worst day of our lives. I've told my players that my entire coaching career and I'm in absolute shock."
Shabaz, who said he had never retired from a match in those circumstances before, agreed that his emotions clouded his judgment.
"It was an emotional decision and it was in the heat of the moment," Shabaz said in an interview several hours later. "It was a difficult time for me on the court, and I can't really put my finger on one thing, but in that moment it was tough for me to handle it. Unfortunately I handled it that way, which was not the right way. I'm sorry for it and wish that it had never happened."
With a few hours to reflect, Shabaz realized he had neglected to consider the impact his retirement would have on others he cares about.
"This is not what Virginia stands for," Shabaz said. "When you're involved in something like that as a player you tend to forget that you're playing for more than just yourself. It felt good for me personally to do that, but in the big scheme of things, I didn't have a clear mind of what exactly it would mean."
"I don't want to be known as a quitter, or have it interpreted that way," said Shabaz, who had lost to Johnson 7-6(3), 6-2 in the finals of the team competition. "It was something in the heat of the moment, and it really hasn't completely sunk in, but I'm regretful for those actions, and I'm just going to have to move forward from here."
Johnson’s abbreviated win set up a rematch of the USTA/ITA Indoor final last November, which Williams won 1-6, 6-1, 6-4. 
Williams earned his spot in the final with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-0 victory over friend and teammate Tennys Sandgren on another unseasonably cool but brilliantly sunny Northern California day. 
Recalling their first meeting, at age 8 or 9, Williams wasn’t surprised that their encounter in the NCAA semifinals went the distance.
"That was another long match," said the sophomore from Knoxville.  "That was the first time we met.  I think it was the finals."
Both claimed they didn’t like each other much then, but Sandgren and Williams, who are staying in the same hotel room this week, became close friends during their junior days.
Putting that aside for a place in the NCAA final, Williams and Sandgren played a tense and grueling first set with many 20 or 30 stroke rallies. After breaking and holding to claim the first set, Williams admitted he couldn’t continue at that pace.
"He definitely raised his game, and to tell you the truth, I kind of needed a breather," said Williams, who is looking to become only the second Tennessee player to win the NCAA title, joining associate head coach Chris Woodruff, the 1993 champion. "The first set took a lot out of both of us, we had some ridiculous long rallies, and it was very physical."
"I couldn’t really see that he was tired, but some of the shots he was missing, I was like, he’s got to be tired, because normally he wouldn’t make these errors," Sandgren, also a sophomore, said of his comeback in the second set. 
"I was feeling it too, but he kind of gave it to me, and I just ran with it in the second set," Sandgren said. "But he regrouped, got his energy back."
Williams’s forehand was back on target in the third set, while Sandgren began to miss the point-ending volleys he was making in the first two sets, and the final set went quickly.
With his win at the National Indoor in New York, Williams is one of only three players to defeat Johnson in the 2010-2011 college season.
"He’s on a 32 or 33 match winning streak, which just shows how much of an unbelievable player he is," Williams said. "He doesn’t lose too many college matches. It’s always tough, and you always know you’re in for a fight."
Cal-Berkeley’s Juricova, the top seed, had cruised into the semifinals, dropping only 14 games in four matches. But against Gibbs, Juricova needed every big serve and groundstroke she could muster to come away with a victory in a three-hour slugfest.
Trailing 4-2 in the third set, Juricova raised her level, holding and then breaking Gibbs at love to even the set, much to the dismay of the partisan Stanford fans.
Gibbs held her nerve serving at 5-6, sending the match into the ultimate pressure cooker, while cheers of ‘Let’s Go Stanford" reverberated throughout the stadium.
The roar didn’t last long, as Juricova took a 5-1 lead, using her serve to control the points, while Gibbs struggled with her backhand. In the final three points she served, Juricova hit two aces and a service winner to claim a spot in the final for the second consecutive year.
"I definitely wasn’t feeling as confident as I would want to in my service games," said Gibbs, 18.  "Whereas on her serve games, when she started feeling her serve a little more, it made it really hard for me to work into the points, much less a game."
Juricova said she enjoyed the atmosphere, even though the majority of fans were against her.
"I think I was mentally ready for it to be really challenging," she said. 
"She’s a great player, it was a great match, and the crowd was amazing, so that really helped me pull through it.  It’s nice to have something to rely on when it’s really close."
For the second year in a row, Juricova will be facing a local favorite on her home courts, having lost in the final to Georgia’s Chelsey Gullickson last year in Athens.
This year, it’s Stacey Tan who will be boosted by the hometown fans.  The sophomore from Lakewood, Calif. hadn’t had many opportunities to compete against top-ranked players this year, but she has made the most of her chances this week. 
"I was just so happy to get into this tournament," Tan said. "Not making it in last year, it was a really big deal for me to make it in and see how I could do against all these other top players."
Both Tan and Embree played three-setters in the team final, but although Tan called the stretch of matches the past two weeks "exhausting," it was Embree who broke down physically.
Noticeably limping from the opening games of the match, Embree managed to come back from a 4-0 deficit to win the set, but when she dropped the second set, Embree realized she couldn’t play another set and retain any hope of competing credibly in the final.
"The nail was torn off her toe and she was having real issues with her skin," said Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist, explaining the injuries that caused Embree to retire.
"She's the toughest player I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching. For Lauren not to continue, you know that she was hurt badly."
Ranked 43rd nationally, Tan believes her advantage in the final will come from the lack of pressure she’s feeling at this level of competition.
"I haven’t put a lot of pressure on myself in this tournament because I know it’s just a great opportunity for me to play these top players. It’s almost like testing my abilities against them and seeing how well I can do."  
In addition to Tan, Stanford will have four other players vying for national titles on Monday. Hilary Barte, who won the doubles title with Lindsay Burdette last year, will try to repeat with Lindsay’s younger sister Mallory. The third seeds will play Clemson’s Josipa Bek and Keri Wong, seeded fifth, for the championship.
The men’s doubles final will feature four left-handers, with Stanford’s Bradley Klahn and Ryan Thacher, who are No. 5 seeds, taking on Texas A&M’s Austin Krajicek and Jeff Dadamo, the No. 3 seeds for the NCAA title and a possible US Open main draw doubles wild card.