Steve Johnson in action during the NCAA team final.
© Bill Kallenberg
By Chris Starrs special to USTA.com
ATHENS, Ga. – Another day, another rain delay.
At the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships on the University of Georgia campus, No. 2 Florida made quick work of No. 1 UCLA in the women’s final Tuesday, but nasty weather drove No. 1 Southern California and No. 3 Virginia inside to finish their match almost eight hours after it began.
But for the Trojans (33-1), it was worth the wait, as they defeated Virginia (29-3) 4-2 to claim their fourth consecutive national championships and their 20th overall title. The same two teams met for the NCAA title last year in Palo Alto, Calif., with USC taking a 4-3 victory, and the Trojans and Cavaliers have played against each other in the NCAAs for the last four years.
There were moments Tuesday night and Wednesday morning when USC coach Peter Smith wasn’t sure his team could pull it off.
"I think that sometimes you inspire your team and sometimes your team inspires you," said Peter Smith. "I went back to my hotel room (after doubles), and to be honest, I couldn’t visualize it. That was hard for me. I got a few pep talks, went in there, faked it pretty good to the team, and you know, these guys really stepped up."
The Cavaliers, who before this season won four straight indoors titles, captured the doubles point before the rains came and forced the teams indoors for the second consecutive night.
Alex Domijan and Mitchell Frank beat Daniel Nguyen and Ray Sarmiento 8-5 at No. 2, and Justin Shane and Julien Uriguen bested Emilio Gonzalez and Yannick Hanfmann 8-4 at No. 3. It was just the second doubles loss of the season for USC.
"We felt good, but we knew we had a lot of work to do," said Virginia coach Brian Boland. "We certainly had a really good mindset about it. The guys handled the adversity that took place over the tournament, but that's just part of sports. I thought we handled those transitions well. (Give) credit to Southern California; they came out and jumped on us early. I think that was more a credit to them that anything we did poorly. I thought we came ready to play, and we got in there and played indoors. I thought the mindsets were great, and unfortunately, one team had to lose."
After a three-hour rain delay, USC’s steady Steve Johnson quickly evened the score at 1-1 by defeating Jarmere Jenkins, 6-3, 6-2, at No. 1 singles, and the Trojans went up 2-1 when Gonzalez beat Virginia’s Drew Courtney, 6-4, 6-2, at No. 4.
Frank then provided the equalizer for the Cavaliers, beating Nguyen, 6-3, 6-1, at No. 4. Sarmiento brought USC to within one point of victory with a 6-4, 7-5 triumph over Domijan at No. 2, setting the scene for the grand finale.
And what a finale it was. In a struggle that took nearly three hours, Hanfmann needed to capture a tiebreaker in the third set and topped Shane, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (4), at No. 5. Hanfmann’s sixth clincher of the season couldn’t have come at a better time.
"It’s not just me; the whole team was just competing and playing their butts off like (Smith) wanted us to," said Hanfmann. "I think that we did all that. Just seeing everybody play so hard, it was just inspiration for me. I am lucky I finished that well."
Johnson, the No. 1 singles player in the country, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and was also named to the all-tournament teams at No. 1 doubles (with Quiroz) and No. 1 singles. Sarmiento was also honored in doubles (with Nguyen) and singles.
From Virginia, Domijan and Frank made the all-tourney team at No. 3 doubles, and Frank was recognized at No. 3 singles.
NO. 2 FLORIDA 4, NO. 2 UCLA 0
The Lady Gators (27-1) showed no ill effects from their five-hour marathon semifinal against Duke on Monday, winning the doubles point in about 45 minutes and claiming their second consecutive national title in less than three hours.
"I really think all those wind sprints, all the grass workouts, all the Gator Mountains, all those things that were painful certainly paid off today because without them we could not have rebounded from yesterday’s humongous battle against Duke and be as fresh as we were today," said Florida coach Roland Thornqvist. "I thought we were absolutely fantastic and outstanding from start to finish today."
"We weren’t as sharp as we needed to be to beat a team like Florida," said UCLA coach Stella Sampras Webster, whose team also worked overtime to defeat No. 5 Southern California 4-3 in Monday’s other semifinal match. "I thought we’d be able to compete and be able to give them a good, contested match, but it just seemed like they took over."
In doubles, Florida got off to a fast start, winning at No. 1, when Sofie Oyen and Allie Will beat Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton 8-4. Not long after, the Lady Gators claimed the doubles point, when Alex Cercone and Caroline Hitimana dispatched McCall Jones and Carling Seguso 8-5 at No. 3.
"There’s no question we played the best doubles of the year here, without a doubt, and that’s a big key," said Thornqvist, who now has coached the Lady Gators to three national championships. "To make a run like this, you need seven unselfish players, and that’s not easy to get, to have seven players buy in to what we’re trying to, and some players have to be willing to lose for the team to win sometimes, and this team is willing to do it."
"Florida came out strong in the doubles, especially at No. 1," said Sampras Webster. "They played with a lot of energy and fire, and I think we had some chances at 2 and 3. They played well and won a lot of the big points, and losing that doubles point was tough."
Cercone, who recorded Florida’s clincher in three arduous sets on Monday, was the first Lady Gator off the court Tuesday, defeating Channelle Van Nguyen, 6-2, 6-0, to put her team up 2-0.
"I was a little concerned how I’d hold up today after my match yesterday, so I’m really happy that I played efficient tennis today," said Cercone, who is 9-0 in NCAA singles matches in her career. "It was good for me physically, and obviously it helped out the other girls. I was just going to wait until this morning to see how I felt. I was going to do everything I possibly could to make sure my body would be ready."
Oyen was next off the court, defeating Morton, 6-3, 6-2, at No. 4, and Embree – who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player – clinched the match and the title for Florida, with a 6-4, 6-0 win at No. 2 singles.
"I’m glad it wasn’t as dramatic as last year," said Embree of the 2011 4-3 national title-game victory over Stanford. "It feels amazing to clinch it, but without our 1 and 3 doubles team, we wouldn’t have gotten the doubles point, so I’m so proud of our team effort."
Although the Lady Gators returned their entire lineup after winning the national championship a year ago, Thornqvist said this season was not without adversity.
"You have to go back and do everything you did last year in building your team and regaining confidence," he said. "Sometimes, when you come back as the defending champion, you want to continue from where you left off, which is really dangerous.
"Sometimes you can get into the little pit where it’s dangerous to compare the two years. You’ve got to start with a clean slate and work your way, building the pyramid from the bottom up. It takes a lot of work. At first we struggled with it, but as the year progressed, we got better and better."
UCLA ends the season at 26-3.