By Colette Lewis, special to USTA.com
STANFORD, Calif. - Most of the nearly 3,000 fans attending the NCAA Division I men’s quarterfinals at Stanford University Saturday may have left disappointed in the result, but the excitement and the emotions on display in the University of Virginia’s 4-3 win over the eighth-seeded Cardinal will be an indelible memory for each of them.
When Virginia’s Sanam Singh hit a down-the-line forehand winner to defeat Stanford’s Alex Clayton 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, claiming the final point for the top-ranked Cavaliers after over four hours of competition, the senior from India touched off a joyous celebration among teammates and Virginia fans.
The Cavaliers’ 3-0 lead, earned with the doubles point and victories by Julien Uriguen over Daniel Ho at No. 6 and Jarmere Jenkins over Denis Lin at No. 4, had dwindled to no lead at all. Stanford’s Ryan Thacher dealt Alex Domijan his first dual match defeat of the year at No. 2 to make it 3-1, and Bradley Klahn gave Stanford its second point with a straight-sets win over Michael Shabaz at No. 1.
The crowd, primarily Stanford fans, but with a sizable Virginia contingent also present, roared with each point won. The Cardinal supporters sensed their team had a chance to deal the Cavaliers their first loss of the season, even after both Justin Shane at No. 5 and Singh at No. 3 had forced third sets.
Shane fell behind Stanford’s Matt Kandath 5-2 in the third set, sending the raucous students behind the court, including one wearing a plush elephant costume, into a frenzy. Reminiscent of Duke basketball’s Cameron Crazies, they pushed the limits of tennis etiquette, several times when Shane made an error.
Shane, a freshman, quieted them by winning two straight games, but Kandath succeeded in serving out the match the second time, posting a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 victory to send all the attention to the other side of the Taube Family Tennis Center.
Singh had just broken Clayton with a backhand winner at 3-4 in the third set. Serving for the match, Singh went up 30-0, and the Stanford fans were nearly silent with anxiety and tension. A double fault and a Stanford-friendly net cord made it 30-30, however, and the noise level rose.
Singh, showing no sign of nerves, took the next point with an aggressive forehand that caused Clayton to net a backhand. It was match point. That final point was won with Clayton defending well until Singh finally tagged a forehand so deep and close to the line that Clayton could only lunge futilely for it.
As the Virginia players and fans celebrated, the crowd filed out into the rapidly chilling evening air, full of appreciation for both teams’ efforts.
"It’s a match we won’t forget," said Stanford head coach John Whitlinger. "We battled Virginia, the top team in the country, a team that’s undefeated, a team that’s really good, right to the wire. My hat is off to Virginia. They beat us today, and I wish them luck going forward, but I’m so proud of my team and the effort they put in today. They left it all on the table, and we almost pulled it off."
Whitlinger needed a few seconds to compose himself when asked about Clayton’s contribution to the Stanford program over the past four years.
"When he got here we were in a little chaos on this team," Whitlinger said. "And the leadership he’s given, the effort that he’s given, the class that he’s given—one of the greatest guys of all time. He’s leaving this program in much better shape than when he came here."
Clayton, his eyes rimmed with tears, spoke of the realization he had played his last dual match.
"It’s hard being done," he said. "I’ve never teared up or cried after a match before in my entire life. This is the first time ever, and it’s a really weird feeling. But Stanford’s been the most incredible experience of my life. This place has given me so much. I can’t ever be thankful enough."
Although from a completely difference perspective, Virginia coach Brian Boland also expressed his gratitude for the host school.
"Stanford gave us everything they had in one of the best environments we can imagine playing in," he said. "Stanford played a great match, in a terrific college tennis environment. It’s what makes college tennis exciting, win or lose. I’m just really happy to move on."
As a freshman, Singh had lost the deciding match against Georgia in the NCAA semifinals in 2008, cramping so badly late in the match he could barely move. He acknowledged the changes he has been through since that disappointing loss.
"It shows how far I’ve come since my first year," said Singh, who called the atmosphere at the Stanford the most hostile he’s faced. "Coming to Virginia is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, not only as tennis player, but as a person. I feel I’ve matured, I’ve gotten fitter, and most of all stronger, and I feel that was the difference today."
Virginia’s semifinal opponent on Monday is No. 4 Ohio State, who defeated No. 5 Baylor 4-2, getting the doubles point and wins from Chase Buchanan, Balazs Novak and Blaz Rola.
After his team finally subdued the Bears after more than four hours, Ohio State head coach Ty Tucker looked ahead to another meeting with the Cavaliers.
"They’re the best team in the country," Tucker said. "They’ve had their way with us lately, semis of the (2011 National Team) Indoors, a couple years ago the finals of the Indoors, and we’re hoping we can find some answers."
After hearing the regular roars from the Stanford crowds at the main stadium courts across the street from where the Buckeyes were playing Baylor, Tucker came up with a tongue-in-cheek offer.
"Do you think 3,000 people from Stanford are going to come and cheer for us? Is there any way we can get them on our side? We’d love to take them all to out to Buca di Beppo. It’s on us if you’ll come out and yell."
In the more routine of the day’s two earlier quarterfinals, two-time defending champion and No. 2 seed Southern California ran its winning streak to 14 with a 4-1 victory over No. 10 Kentucky. The Trojans won the lengthy doubles point and got victories from Steve Johnson, Raymond Sarmiento and Emilio Gomez to defeat the Wildcats.
USC’s opponent in Monday’s semifinal will be No. 6 Georgia, who avenged two earlier losses to No. 3 Tennessee with a dramatic 4-3 win over the Volunteers.
Tennessee had taken the doubles point, and contrary to all expectations, the first four points in singles went very quickly, with Georgia getting wins from Ignacio Taboada, Hernus Pieters and Sadio Doumbia, while Boris Conkic picked up a win for the Volunteers. Trailing 3-2, Tennessee needed victories on the last two matches in progress, and Rhyne Williams delivered the third point for the Volunteers with a 7-5, 7-5 win over Javier Garrapiz at No. 2.
At court No. 1, Wil Spencer had dropped the first set to Tennessee’s JP Smith 6-2, but came back to take the second by the same score. When Williams closed out his win, Smith was serving at 4-5 in the third set, and he held at love to make it 5-5.
With Spencer serving at 0-15, Smith vomited in the corner near the back fence, and it was several minutes before the court could be cleaned up and play resumed. Smith earned a break point at 30-40, but his return went just wide, and at deuce, he requested a medical time out.
"All of sudden, he was walking forward and sitting down," said Georgia head coach Manny Diaz. "I didn’t know what was happening. But I told Wil, maybe this is what you needed. Because Wil told me when he came to sit down that he felt like he was about to throw up."
Spencer also was receiving treatment for cramping on earlier changeovers, but he came out after the medical timeout, quickly won the next two points, and had a 6-5 lead.
"It was actually an advantage," said Spencer, a junior who played two years at Texas A&M before transferring to Georgia this year. "I was able to get a little extra time, drink some fluids, kind of catch my breath a little bit. I didn’t know he was so tired until I saw him throwing up, so maybe that was a little bit of a mental advantage, when your opponent is suffering like that too."
Smith was obviously not himself in the next service game, moving sluggishly, foot faulting and committing two unforced errors on the forehand. The second of those made it 30-40, and he netted a forehand volley on the next point, ending Tennessee’s hope for a second consecutive appearance in the finals.
"I told Wil when he started cramping that these are what great stories are made of," said Diaz, whose teams have reached the semifinals in five of the past six years. "We’ll be talking about this 20 years down the road."
Spencer also alluded to the Bulldogs’ storied history as he reflected on the match.
"The program’s unbelievable and I’ve always known about their history," Spencer said. "Something about going there, they just expect greatness, and it gets the best out of you. I know people have said this before, but there’s something special about being a Bulldog."
The men have Sunday off, leaving the stage to the women for their quarterfinals matches.