By Colette Lewis, special to USTA.com
STANFORD, Calif. -- The University of Tennessee’s Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren warm up together, train together, travel together, play doubles together, and are occupying the same hotel room during the NCAA team and individual championships. But after they face each other Sunday, the togetherness will end, with only one of them earning a place in Monday’s NCAA singles final.
Williams, the No. 4 seed and reigning USTA/ITA Indoor champion, took out last year’s NCAA champion Bradley Klahn of Stanford 6-4, 6-4, on a cool and intermittently damp day at the Taube Family Tennis Center. The hundreds of Cardinal fans encouraged the ninth-seeded Klahn throughout, but they were unable to provide him with an answer to Williams’ serve.
"I was serving unbelievably and that really helped me," said Williams, a 20-year-old sophomore from Knoxville. "Once I got a break, I felt really comfortable with my own service games. He only had one break point, I think, the whole match, and I was really happy with the way I was playing off the ground as well."
Williams broke early in both sets, and even a brief rain delay in the middle of the second set didn’t disrupt his concentration.
At the completion of his match, Williams was able to watch best friend Sandgren take on unseeded Marcel Thiemann of Mississippi, who had reached the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year. Sandgren, a sophomore playing in his first national individual competition, showed no sign of nerves, overcoming a 0-40 deficit and a bit of controversy to serve out a 6-3, 6-4 win.
Using his serve and forehand to control points, Sandgren held the advantage throughout his match with Thiemann, a junior from Germany. At 3-3 in the second, Sandgren got a break, but it looked as if he wouldn’t hold it when, serving for the match, his two unforced errors made it 0-30. A ball rolling from the doubles match on the adjacent court negated a point Sandgren was in position to win, and he lost the replayed point to go down 0-40.
Rather than get rattled however, Sandgren regrouped to win the next five points, the final one with an ace.
"Yesterday I was up 5-4, 40-love serving for the match and today was the opposite, down love-40 serving for it," said Sandgren, who is from Gallatin, Tennessee. "I didn’t hold serve up 40-love, so maybe I can get back in this game and hold. I made some good first serves and he made a couple of unforced errors and that was the difference."
As for the let, Sandgren took his cue from associate head coach Chris Woodruff, who was watching the match from the sidelines with Williams.
"He got a little ticked off, and I think he was trying to get me from getting down on myself for something I couldn’t control, get a little fired up, a little more focused. The game wasn’t over, so I think that helped me to refocus."
Moments after Sandgren left the court he joked he would be putting eye drops in his roommate’s water, and while Williams wasn’t as specific, he suggested Sandgren sleep with one eye open.
"He’ll have his chance," said Sandgren, laughing. "I’m going to go to sleep. He’ll have his chance if he wants it. No, it’ll be fun. I’m just excited that a Vol will be in the final, and hopefully one of us can come up with the championship."
Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said he believed the quarterfinal loss to Georgia in the team event motivated his players as they prepared for the individual tournament.
"We were all bitterly disappointed," Winterbotham said of the 4-3 loss. "We felt we had more in us. We’re fighters and we don’t like losing. We talked quickly and early about getting back on the horse. They’ve had great practices, and as you can see, they’re playing at a really high level."
There isn’t much for Winterbotham to do in preparation for the semifinals however.
"It’s a day off tomorrow," said Winterbotham, who is in his fifth year at Tennessee. "We’re just going to sit and watch them play."
The other semifinal also features two Americans--Steve Johnson of Southern California and Michael Shabaz of Virginia--marking the first time since 1999 that all four semifinalists are from the United States. That year Jeff Morrison of Florida defeated James Blake of Harvard in the final, with Eric Drew of Washington and Ryan Wolters of Stanford the two semifinalists.
The top-seeded Johnson defeated No. 5 Blaz Rola of Ohio State 6-4, 6-4 to record his 33rd consecutive win. Shabaz’s 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 victory over No. 8 seed Henrique Cunha of Duke set up a rematch of Tuesday’s team final at the No. 1 position, with Johnson collecting a 7-6 (2), 6-3 victory over Shabaz in USC’s 4-3 win.
Saturday’s quarterfinal rematch of the women’s 2010 final, with champion Chelsey Gullickson of Georgia meeting Cal-Berkeley’s Jana Juricova, proved to be all Juricova this time. Also avenging her loss to Gullickson in last week’s team competition, when Gullickson won the final five games in the clinching match, Juricova rolled to a 6-3, 6-0 win on Saturday.
The top-seeded Juricova, a junior from the Slovak Republic and the only international player in either the men’s or women’s semifinals, has dropped only 14 games in her four wins this week. She will face unseeded Stanford freshman Nicole Gibbs Sunday in her quest to return to the final.
Gibbs, who played nearly four hours and saved three match points in her third round win over No. 6 seed Allie Will Friday, defeated No. 3 seed and teammate Hilary Barte 6-4, 6-1.
After a full body massage, an ice bath and plenty of ibuprofen to counteract the effects of Friday’s marathon, Gibbs said she felt fine physically, but there was little joy on her face when she saw the final shot of Barte’s college career sail long.
"That was a really sad match to close out," Gibbs said. "I was serving in that game and I couldn’t look at her when I served, because I knew if I won that point it was her last point of college tennis.
"It’s really hard to watch your teammate go out, even if you’re the one sending her packing."
An all-Stanford final is still possible after Gibbs’s teammate Stacey Tan, also unseeded, reached the semifinal in the other half of the draw by downing unseeded Nina Secerbegovic of Baylor 5-7, 6-1, 6-4.
Tan, a sophomore from Lakewood, Calif., was up early in all three sets. She lost the final four games of the first set, but dominated in the second and early in the third. Secerbegovic, a junior from Bosnia, fought back to even the third set, but Tan, assisted by the sweatshirt-and-jacket-wearing home crowd, finished strong.
Awaiting Tan in the semifinals is Florida’s Lauren Embree, who defeated Mari Andersson of Cal-Berkeley 6-3, 7-6(5). Embree, who won the dramatic clinching match in Florida’s 4-3 win over Stanford in the team final Tuesday, could be excused for feeling some fatigue, but said she’s coping with playing for a seventh straight day.
"I was a little tired out there, but I was trying to win in two so I didn’t have to play a third," said the sophomore from Marco Island, Fla. "I lost to Mari last year (in the first round of the NCAA). She’s a great player, so I knew it would be a really tough match. But I’m just excited for the semis and ready for tomorrow."
The doubles semifinals will also be contested on Sunday, with Juricova the only player still in both draws. She and Andersson play Barte and Mallory Burdette of Stanford, while a third Pac-10 team, Kaitlyn Christian and Maria Sanchez of USC, meet Clemson’s Josipa Bek and Keri Wong.
In the men’s semifinals, Kevin King and Juan Spir of Georgia Tech take on Texas A&M’s Jeff Dadamo and Austin Krajicek, with Florida’s Sekou Bangoura, Jr. and Alexandre Lacroix facing Stanford’s Klahn and Ryan Thacher.