KWIATKOWSKI, MINOR TRIUMPH
AT NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS
Chris Starrs | May 29, 2017
ATHENS, Ga. – The final day of the NCAA Tennis Championships yielded plenty of broken serves, broken ties and broken hearts, as well as a host of noteworthy firsts for the competitors and their teams.
While the men’s singles champion, Virginia senior Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, played for the first singles title of his career, the women’s winner, Michigan sophomore Brienne Minor, claimed the first singles crown in school history.
And on the doubles side, Oklahoma’s Andrew Harris and Spencer Papa went to a third-set match tiebreak to claim the inaugural men’s title in school history and Ohio State’s Francesca Di Lorenzo and Miho Kowase also went to a match tiebreak to win their school’s first women’s doubles championship.
Attendance at this year’s tournament, which began May 18 and ended Monday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on the University of Georgia campus, was 13,456, one of the largest totals in the 32 times the championships have been held here. ADVERTISEMENT
Men’s singles: Fourth time is the charm
Thai-Son Kwiatkowski’s opponent in the singles final, North Carolina freshman William Blumberg, was a familiar foe.
The two had met three times previously this season, with Blumberg capturing victories in the ACC semifinals and last week in the NCAA team finals, when the Cavaliers defeated the Tar Heels, 4-2, for the 2017 championship. Their first meeting of the season, in February at the ITA National Team Indoor semifinals, was unfinished.
This time around, however, Kwiatkowski was the victor, besting Blumberg – who last week was named the most outstanding player in the team tournament and was the ACC Freshman of the Year – by a 6-4, 7-6 (5) score.
“I really wanted to get that team win for sure, because that would have been a big boost and I would have loved to do it for my team,” said Kwiatkowski. “On that day, the rest of the guys really picked me up because Will really took it to me indoors last week.”
In the first set, Kwiatkowski and Blumberg were tied at 4-4 when the Virginia senior broke the North Carolina freshman’s serve and then minutes later held serve to post the win. The second set was just as close, with Kwiatkowski having just enough to edge his younger rival in the tiebreak.
Kwiatkowski said that the Virginia coaching staff put a new strategy in play for the championship match – and clearly, it worked very well.
“Today I felt the coaches gave me a really good game plan, very different than the one we’d had before actually,” he said. “I just went out and tried to fight as hard as I could. … I wanted to be more aggressive than I normally would be at the start of a match. When you have such a plan, it’s easy to focus on the plan instead of focusing on this or that point. That’s how it was for me today.”
Women’s singles: ‘Hey, just have fun and relax’
At the conclusion of Brienne Minor’s 6-3, 6-3 victory over Florida’s Belinda Woolcock, Minor let her racquet fly, partially in celebration and partially in exhaustion.
“It feels amazing; I’m still soaking it all in,” said Minor. “When I threw my racquet at the end of the match I just felt this wave of relief because I was just so happy I could get that win. I was super-tired, so I was excited to let that racquet go and just be done with the match.”
Squaring off against the No. 6 seed in the singles bracket, Minor – who was ranked No. 27 – collected six breaks in her two sets, including a break of Woolcock’s serve to claim the victory.
“I didn’t think I was going to win on that break, but I was really tired so I was thinking this was one I needed to get,” said Minor, who defeated No. 1 Francesca Di Lorenzo of Ohio State in the opening round of singles.
Woolcock, who was named the most valuable player of the team championships and was the first Florida player to reach the singles finals in 15 years, seemed to be off her game after Sunday’s three-set semifinal victory over Miami’s Estela Perez-Somarriba. She fell behind 4-0 in the first set, and after breaking Minor to make it 1-1 in the second set, never really threatened the rest of the way.
Minor, meantime, said that she was much more at ease in the singles tournament than she was in the team tournament, where Michigan was ousted in the first round by Stanford.
“It changes because my nerves kind of went away in the individuals,” she said. “I get more nervous in the team competition, but when I got into individuals I was like, ‘Hey, just have fun and relax.’”
Men’s doubles: Running the gauntlet
In addition to making school history with the Sooners’ first men’s doubles title, senior Andrew Harris and junior Spencer Papa had quite a road to travel just to reach the final, where they defeated top-ranked Robert Loeb and Jan Zielinski of Georgia, 4-6, 6-2, [10-6].
After a first-round victory, the No. 15 doubles tandem defeated No. 6 Mike Redlicki and Jose Salazar of Arkansas. In the quarterfinals, they bested No. 4 Martin Redlicki and Evan Zhu of UCLA. And they reached the finals by getting past No. 4 Skander Mansouri and Christian Seraphim of Wake Forest on Sunday.
“We didn’t even look past the first round,” said Harris. “In college tennis, anything can happen, two sets and a super tiebreak. We knew me and Spence had been playing well, we could beat anyone.”
After dropping the first set, the Sooners duo lost a break to fall behind 0-1 in the second set, but they broke Georgia to tie it at 2-2 and held serve to take their first lead of the day at 3-2. Harris and Papa then broke Loeb and Zielinski two more times to force the match tiebreak, where they never trailed.
“We had to pick up the energy,” said Harris. “We needed a couple of games to get us the momentum and that really helped us throughout the match. … It had to come from us. We had to pick it up and we knew that was our only chance to come back down from a break in the second set.”
Women’s doubles: ‘I want revenge’
Ohio State’s 18th-ranked Miho Kowase and Francesca Di Lorenzo closed out the day of firsts by capturing the Buckeyes’ first women’s NCAA title, defeating Alabama’s No. 5-ranked tandem of Maddie Pothoff and Erin Routliffe, 6-7 (6), 6-4, [10-7].
The victory was particularly sweet for Kowase, a senior, whose sister Maho Kowase is the winningest player in Georgia women’s tennis history and whose last college match was a loss to Alabama in the NCAA doubles tournament in 2014.
“Three years ago I watched my sister lose her last match here against Alabama,” said Miho Kowase. “And I thought to myself, ‘I want revenge.’ Here I am three years later, winning it.”
Alabama’s Routliffe played on the doubles championship team in both 2014 and 2015, but Ohio State’s strong comeback ensured she would not collect a third title. After dropping the opening set in a tiebreak, Kowase and Di Lorenzo claimed the second set and trailed only twice – at 4-5 and 5-6 – in the third-set match tiebreak.
“I think we let go of the nerves we had starting out,” said Di Lorenzo. “At the beginning, our footwork was off and we were playing tight tennis, which is never good. They were serving really well and we were getting frustrated, so once we calmed down and took it point by point, doing what we really do best, we started executing much better.”
The Ohio State duo had a difficult gauntlet of its own to run in order to reach the final, defeating Georgia’s Caroline Brinson and Ellen Perez – ranked 5-8 – in the first round, besting Kentucky’s No. 3-ranked team of Mami Adachi and Aldila Sutjiadi in the quarterfinals, and defeating Cal’s Maya Jansen and Maegan Manasse in Sunday’s semifinals.