By Colette Lewis, special to USTA.com
STANFORD, Calif. - Three of the four finalists in Tuesday’s NCAA Division I Team Championships are back where they ended the 2010 season. The Stanford women and University of Southern California men hope to retain the titles they won last year in Athens, Ga., with the Florida women trying to find the one point that eluded them in their 4-3 loss to the Cardinal.
The fourth team can hardly be considered an outsider. The top-seeded and undefeated University of Virginia men have been the tournament’s No. 1 seed the past four years, but advanced to their first final Monday with a 4-2 victory over No. 4 Ohio State on another clear but cool day in Northern California.
Several hundred Cavalier fans, instantly identified by their orange T-shirts, made the coast-to-coast trek, giving Stanford University’s Taube Family Tennis Center the feel of a home match for the Virginia players.
But when Ohio State took the doubles point, with 8-6 wins at No. 2 and No. 3, there wasn’t much noise from the Wahoo cheering section. The quality of the tennis in those three doubles matches was astoundingly high, with momentum shifts and huge points happening simultaneously, and the Buckeyes were obviously excited to have taken the lead.
The Virginia singles lineup is exceptionally deep, however, and even without Drew Courtney, who was once again held out at No. 5 singles, the Cavaliers took four first sets in singles. Virginia freshman Alex Domijan got the first point for his team with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Chase Buchanan at No. 2, and Michael Shabaz made it 2-1 Cavaliers with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Blaz Rola at No. 1. Ohio State didn’t go quietly, however, and when Matt Allare came back from 5-2 down in the second set to force a third in his match with Jarmere Jenkins at No. 4, the Buckeyes still had hope. When Devin McCarthy gave Ohio State its second point with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 win over Justin Shane at No. 5, the other four singles matches were all in third sets.
Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they had substantial leads in two of the them, and within minutes of each other, Jenkins had point No. 3 with a 6-3, 6-7(3), 6-2 decision, and Sanam Singh earned No. 4 with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Ille Van Engelen at No. 3.
"I was very proud of the way the team faced the adversity of losing the doubles point, since we’ve been very dominant in doubles," said Virginia head coach Brian Boland, "The way they came out, refocused, and brought the energy and left it on the court. Ohio State’s a great team, I give them all the credit in the world, and they’ve been here many times. I’m just proud we pulled through and have an opportunity to move on and play tomorrow."
Both Boland and Jenkins expressed their appreciation for the support of their fans.
"The UVA fan support is pretty special," Jenkins said. "It doesn’t happen anywhere else, and to see them come all the way out from Virginia, it definitely helps a lot."
Boland gives Charlottesville the credit, calling it "an incredible tennis town."
"We have an amazing fan base, and to see them out here with their orange and blue, it’s great. It’s a tremendous effort to travel this far."
As for facing the two-time defending champion USC Trojans, Boland said his team would embrace the challenge. Having lost to USC the past two years -in the quarterfinals in 2009 and in the semifinals last year - Virginia has its dragon to slay. But Boland doesn’t consider the Trojans edge in experience to be significant. His teams have won four consecutive ITA Team Indoor titles, and "top to bottom, our team is full of players who have tremendous success nationally and internationally on big occasions."
A veteran of such big occasions, USC junior Daniel Nguyen, who clinched the Trojans title last year over Tennessee, and won the fourth point in USC’s shutout of No. 6 Georgia Monday, knew a surprise was awaiting his team.
Head coach Peter Smith had promised one, but it wasn’t until they heard the first strains of the USC fight song "Fight On," played by 10 members of the university band, could the team guess what was in store for them.
"Having them is just a huge advantage," Nguyen said, as the trombones and coronets blared in the background. "Their music just pumped me up from the first point on in doubles. I didn’t know they were coming, and it was sweet to have them."
The band members were actually accompanying the USC football and basketball coaches on a trip to Northern California, and happened to be in the area, so Smith arranged for their appearance in Palo Alto.
"I told the team I wanted to make this feel like a home match," Smith said. "It was great and I thought it really added to the atmosphere. These kids are student-athletes and making this moment special for them is important."
Whether it was due to the band, the team’s 16 consecutive NCAA tournament wins, or what Smith called their "calm," USC played focused and motivated tennis against Georgia, taking the doubles point and three straight-set singles wins.
The nation’s top-ranked collegiate player, Trojan Steve Johnson set the tone with a 6-0, 6-0 victory over Wil Spencer at No. 1. Raymond Sarmiento followed, beating Drake Bernstein 6-2, 6-3 at No. 4 to make 3-0, leaving Nguyen to finish with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Sadio Doumbia at No. 3.
Smith is looking forward to taking on the Cavaliers, the first time the top two seeds have met in the NCAA finals since 2006 in Palo Alto, when Pepperdine surprised top seed and undefeated Georgia.
"I think that’s what everybody wants," said Smith. "That’s what everyone keeps telling me. We’re going to find out who the best team is, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure out there. Hopefully our experience is going to help us."
In the women’s final, there is no disparity in that department.
Stanford and Florida are the two most successful programs in women’s Division I tennis, with Stanford claiming 16 titles and Florida four. Last year, the Cardinal overcame the loss of the doubles point to claim four singles matches from the Gators; freshman Mallory Burdette clinched for Stanford with a 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 victory over Marrit Boonstra of Florida.
Boonstra is one of the few players not returning to Tuesday’s final match, with possibly nine players from the 2010 championship taking the Taube Family Tennis Courts, where Stanford has won 184 consecutive matches.
Burdette clinched Monday’s 4-1 semifinal win over No. 5 Baylor, taking a 7-5, 6-4 decision from Nina Secerbegovic at No. 2.
The sophomore from Georgia didn’t show much emotion after her victory however, admitting it was less intense than last year’s experience.
"I don’t think much can compare to clinching last year," Burdette said. "But for this year it was great, it was a good feeling."
Although Stanford won the doubles point, Baylor got on the board very quickly when freshman Kristie Ahn reinjured her ankle against Jelena Stanivuk at No. 4 and was forced to retire leading 2-1 in the first set, leaving her status in doubt for Tuesday’s final.
"She’s going to be in the training room a lot, so we’ll see," said Stanford coach Lele Forood.
Stanford’s second point came from Stacey Tan, who followed up a 6-0, 6-0 win in the quarterfinals with an efficient 6-1, 6-4 victory over Karolina Filipiak at No. 5. Veronica Li gave Stanford a 3-0 lead with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Taylor Ormond at No. 6, leaving Burdette as the most likely final point. Secerbegovic had served for the first set at 5-4, but lost three straight games, and she didn’t fare any better at the end of the second set, with Burdette getting a break at 4-5 to complete the Cardinal victory.
After his team’s loss, Baylor coach Joey Scrivano said Stanford was "better than us, and they’re better than every team in the country," an assessment that Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist didn’t argue with.
"Obviously Stanford has to be the heavy favorite," Thornqvist said after his team had beaten No. 6 UCLA 4-0. "They haven’t lost here in 11, 12 years, and haven’t lost a match in a year and a half. This is one of the matches tomorrow where we have the luxury of playing good tennis with no fear, and I hope we take advantage of that."
Thornqvist felt his team had been playing "with the world on our shoulders that we had to get here and anything else was going to be a failure, and that held us back at times. Today we started to let go and play a little bit better, and I think tomorrow we’ll be able to swing loose."
Florida took the doubles point, and came out strong in singles, winning four first sets. Lauren Embree made it 2-0 with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Noelle Hickey at No. 2, and Alex Cercone made it 3-0, taking a 7-5, 6-3 decision from Courtney Dolehide at 5. It looked as if UCLA would get on the board at No. 4 when Pam Montez had two match points on Joanna Mather at 6-4, 5-0, but Mather came all the way back to earn a split.
"Even a set and 5-0 down, I knew when she got the 5-2 game she was going to stay out there forever," Embree said. "She can compete like a champion, and she’s such a great leader, such a great friend, she’s just amazing."
Mather’s comeback gave Allie Will the opportunity to make it a shutout, and she didn’t waver, taking out McCall Jones 7-6(7), 6-2 at No. 1.
"I just had to battle and grind today," said Will. "I thought my coach helped me a lot, got me to be more aggressive and relax. I used my forehand really well, was glad I got the first set, then relaxed a little bit and really went for it in the second set."
Florida’s sole loss this year was in the final of the Team Indoor in February, but Thornqvist has no desire to dwell on the fact that Stanford has inflicted his team’s last two losses in national tournament finals.
"We’re just going to play," Thornqvist said. "Hopefully we’ll play our best tennis of the year tomorrow."
The finals, which will be shown live on ESPNU, begin at noon Pacific time with the men’s final, followed by the women’s final at 4 p.m. Tape-delayed broadcasts of both finals will be available on ESPN2 beginning at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.