©Colette Lewis 2014--
Until Tuesday, Southern California men's coach Peter Smith and UCLA women's coach Stella Sampras Webster had different impressions of Athens, Georgia. Smith's Trojans had claimed two NCAA team titles at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex at the University of Georgia in 2010 and 2012, while Sampras Webster's Bruins had suffered losses in the finals here in 2004, 2007 and 2012.
But on Tuesday that disparity disappeared, with both teams claiming NCAA titles over determined underdogs making their NCAA debuts at one of college tennis's most history-laden sites.
No. 5 seed UCLA's 4-3 victory over No. 7 seed University of North Carolina began in routine fashion, with the Bruins taking the doubles point, as they had done in every match they played this year. It ended with sophomore Kyle McPhillips securing the championship point in a tense final game, defeating Caroline Price 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 to give the Bruins their second NCAA Women's Team Championship.
UCLA's Catherine Harrison and McPhillips won at No. 2 doubles in dominating fashion, beating Price and Whitney Kay 8-2. At No. 1, UCLA's Robin Anderson and Jennifer Brady had seen their 5-3 advantage slip away against Jamie Loeb and Hayley Carter, but Brady and Anderson, the nation's top-ranked team, took the tiebreaker 8-7(3) to give UCLA the 1-0 lead.
The teams split first sets, so the Tar Heels needed to force a third set somewhere. Anderson, ranked No. 2 in the nation, had dealt freshman Jamie Loeb only the third loss of her career against 50 wins at line 1, giving UCLA a 2-0 lead. Anderson, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, had lost to Loeb in straight sets in the finals of both fall ITA majors, but the junior from New Jersey played flawless tennis to dispatch the top-ranked New Yorker.
"I went into the match feeling like I had nothing to lose," said Anderson, who deemed it one of the best matches she had ever played. "I just wanted to stay really, really aggressive regardless of the outcome. I was actually really nervous, but I tried hard not to show it."
Once their nearly automatic point had lost, North Carolina didn't collapse, helped by Carter's 6-2, 6-2 win over Brady at line 2 to make it 2-1. North Carolina's Tessa Lyons earned a split with Kaitlyn Ray at line 6, and Kate Vialle pulled the Tar Heels even with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Catherine Harrison at line 5. Price had dropped the first set, but she earned a split with McPhillips, while Chanelle Van Nguyen, who had lost the first set to North Carolina's Ashley Dai, had forced a third set a line 4.
Van Nguyen went on to make it 3-2 UCLA with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over Dai, inserted in the lineup in place of Kay, who had struggled against Stanford in the semifinals due to plantar fasciitis.
With the Bruins needing only one more point, Ray had served for the match at 5-4 against Lyons, but was broken at love, while McPhillips had broken Price to serve for the match, and the championship, at 5-3.
Down 0-40 in that game, McPhillips saved those break points and another, while Lyons held for 6-5, and earned a match point for North Carolina against Ray at 30-40. After a tense rally Lyons crushed a forehand winner to beat Ray 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, making it 3-3 and turning all the attention to court 3.
"That's why I play tennis," said Lyons, a senior from Pennsylvania. "I play for those situations, for the girls next to me, for my team. That girl would have had to kill me to beat me. I was tired, but I couldn't feel what was going on, and I knew if I stayed up in the court, I would win."
Back on court 3, still in that 5-3 game, Price had another break point, but McPhillips saved it, and after the game's second deuce, McPhillips began to lock in. She didn't miss first serves and any errors she did commit were forced by Price's presence at the net. McPhillips finally earned a match point, but Price saved it with a huge cross court backhand winner. After two more break points were saved, McPhillips had another match point, but the junior from Georgia, the daughter of former NBA star Mark Price, saved it with a tricky overhead off a good McPhillips lob.
McPhillips decided to serve and volley on the next match point she earned, but she missed a routine backhand volley--her only real mistake in the final ten minutes of the 15-minute game. Another deuce, the seventh of the game, led to another match point, and this time Price couldn't save it. The 6-foot left-hander again came forward, but she pushed her forehand volley long, and McPhillips was mobbed by her teammates. She was under the pile so long that she staggered, dizzy, as she finally found her feet and approached the net to shake Price's hand.
"This is the single best accomplishment I've ever had in my life," said the 20-year-old from Ohio. "I've played Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the French Open, US Open and nothing compares to this day right here. Winning individuals is really so different from winning for your team, your coaches, your school. There's been so much effort and people and hard work that has gone into this moment right here, so this is the highlight of my tennis career."
Sampras Webster said this team had reminded her of the team who won the 2008 championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Bruins first NCAA team title, even before today's victory.
"I felt it was ours to lose almost because of the players on this team," said Sampras Webster, in her 18th year coaching UCLA, and sister of 14-time slam winner Pete Sampras. "We lost two matches all year, and I just really believed in this team. It felt very similar (to 2008) because we were the best team this year. Of course, it's not always the best team that wins, so we were fortunate that we were able to fight and battle and pull out those four points."
For North Carolina coach Brian Kalbas, who led the Tar Heels to the program's first national team title at the 2013 Indoor Championships, and now to their first NCAA final, the poise and resilience of his team was a source of pride.
"We've never been to the finals before so I don't know how to feel, but I have mixed emotions," Kalbas said. "I'm really proud of our team. We fought extremely hard...UCLA's such a great team. It's heartbreaking to end the season, but I'm really, really proud of our team and our run at the NCAA tournament."
The lengthy women's match pushed the men's final nearly 45 minutes beyond its scheduled starting time, a relief for spectators trying to catch their breath after the heart-pounding excitement of the women's final.
The top-seeded Trojans had a decided edge in experience, with three starters on the team that won the 2012 title here, but there was no sign of nerves from the second-seeded Sooners, who came out and took the doubles point.
Alex Ghilea and Nick Papac took a tiebreaker from Max de Vroome and Eric Johnson at line 3, and Guillermo Alcorta and Andrew Harris left the match on court 1 unfinished by defeating USC's Connor Farren and Robert Quiroz 8-5 at line 2.
While the USC pep band, making its first appearance at this year's tournament, played during the intermission between doubles and singles, fans wondered if the Trojans could find a way to four points against an Oklahoma lineup featuring two of the nation's Top 10 players in Alcorta and Axel Alvarez at lines 1 and 2.
But Alcorta's opponent, Yannick Hanfmann, and Alvarez's opponent, Raymond Sarmiento, were veterans who were not rattled after dropping the doubles point.
Sarmiento, a senior, fell behind 3-0 in the first set, but roared back to take it 6-4, while Hanfmann, a junior, was determined to keep Alcorta from playing long points, moving forward at every opportunity and converting the volleys. Hanfmann secured the first set 7-5, but by that time, Oklahoma's Dane Webb had beaten Quiroz 6-1, 6-2, in just over an hour, giving the Sooners a 2-0 lead.
"I was a little nervous in the first game," said Webb, a junior from Texas, "but after that I really got it rolling. It was definitely way better than I played yesterday and probably one of the best matches I've played all year long."
Harris had taken the first set from de Vroome at line 4, but Ghilea, one of Oklahoma's heroes in its semifinal win over UCLA on Monday night, couldn't convert a 5-2 lead in the first set tiebreaker at line 6, and the Trojans' Michael Grant was up a set.
At line 5, USC's Johnson was racing Webb to post the first singles point, but Oklahoma's Austin Siegel dug in, saving three match points serving down 6-1, 5-3, and eventually forcing a second set tiebreaker. Hanfmann closed out Alcorta 7-5, 6-2, showing more confident tennis with each game, and Sarmiento followed, again coming back from a break early in the set to take a 6-4, 7-6(4) victory.
When Johnson finally subdued Siegel, making it 3-2 USC, De Vroome had forced a third set against Harris and Ghilea had taken the second set from Grant.
De Vroome, a 6-foot-5 sophomore from the Netherlands, got up 4-2 in the third set over Harris, a freshman from Australia, and was serving at 4-3, 40-0 when the inevitable became less so. Another game point eluded the relentlessly attacking de Vroome and eventually Harris broke to make it 4-4.
Although Grant had taken a 4-2 lead over Ghilea, the Trojans had reason for concern, but de Vroome broke right back to give himself a chance to serve for the match and the championship.
"Incredible effort, if you think about it," said Smith. "He's up 4-3, 40-0, with his serve, he should never lose that game. But for him to lose that game and then come back and break right back, and then it happened to him again."
Smith was referring to the final game, when de Vroome again took a 40-0 lead, earning three match points for the championship. He missed a backhand long to lose the first one, then pushed a forehand long to make it 40-30.
"He needed to get to the net on that last point," said Smith, whose teams feature many players committed to that style, although none so obviously as de Vroome.
On a second serve, de Vroome came in, and Harris hit a good dipping return to his backhand. But de Vroome executed a perfect backhand volley winner to deliver the Trojans fifth title in the past six years.
"There's so much going through your mind," de Vroome said about losing that eighth game. "But seeing your teammates right next to the court and coaches on the court, they help you through it. There's no way I could have done it without them."
Although his record of five titles in five final appearances doesn't suggest it, Smith reiterated that winning an NCAA title is hard, and he admitted the Trojans were not one of the favorites when the season began.
"We lost in the quarters last year, and I don't think we were one of the name schools," said Smith. "To me, I looked at the squad and we needed to get better. And we certainly got better, guys got a lot better. Michael Grant, huge contribution here. Max de Vroome, Eric Johnson, they really stepped it up. And Ray got to this point, and it was a lot like his sophomore year. He didn't lose a set. But we had a lot of work to do."
Sarmiento, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, described what it felt like to return to the venue where the Trojans won the second of three titles he has now collected in his USC career.
"Walking on these courts is just comfortable for us," said Sarmiento. "Coming back here after two years ago, there's just so many memories. You walk on these courts and it's like you're playing at home. It's definitely a great place to play, a great atmosphere, and it makes it so special."
Oklahoma coach John Roddick, who played his college tennis for Georgia on the very same courts, was impressed with USC's performance.
"That was probably some of the best singles I've seen played this year," said Roddick, in his fifth year at Oklahoma. "Having said that, I think we played some of the best doubles that's been played this year, so it was a very, very high quality match."
As for Oklahoma's rapid ascent into the elite of college tennis, a rise even he admitted was "ahead of schedule," Roddick knows there is no guarantee that it's permanent.
"You just have to keep recruiting," said Roddick, who had the support of his younger brother Andy and sister-in-law Brooklyn Decker at Dan Magill Tennis Center Tuesday night. "I can't control whether or not our team gets to the finals. I can help them get there, I can help them get better at tennis, work on the right things. But I have to have good players to start with. At the end of the day, it's about these guys wanting to come in and wanting to play, and already being damn good tennis players. Without those guys, you don't have a program. It's as simple as that."
For complete results, as well as the draws for the individual singles and doubles tournaments, which begin Wednesday, see georgiadogs.com.
Women’s Final: #5 UCLA (27-2) def. #7 NORTH CAROLINA (29-6), 4-3 - Henry Feild Stadium
Doubles (Order of finish: 2,1)
1. #1 Robin Anderson/Jennifer Brady (UCLA) def. #3 Jamie Loeb/Hayley Carter (NORTH CAROLINA), 8-7(3)
2. #9 Catherine Harrison/Kyle McPhillips (UCLA) def. #13 Whitney Kay/Caroline Price (NORTH CAROLINA), 8-2
3. Courtney Dolehide/Chanelle Van Nguyen (UCLA) vs. Ashley Dai/Tessa Lyons (NORTH CAROLINA), 6-7, unf.
Singles (Order of finish: 1,2,5,4,6,3)
1. #2 Robin Anderson (UCLA) def. #1 Jamie Loeb (NORTH CAROLINA), 6-2, 6-2
2. #5 Hayley Carter (NORTH CAROLINA) def. #8 Jennifer Brady (UCLA), 6-2, 6-2
3. #38 Kyle McPhillips (UCLA) def. #59 Caroline Price (NORTH CAROLINA), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3
4. #13 Chanelle Van Nguyen (UCLA) def. #105 Ashley Dai (NORTH CAROLINA), 4-6, 6-3, 6-3
5. Kate Vialle (NORTH CAROLINA) def. #75 Catherine Harrison (UCLA), 6-4, 6-4
6. Tessa Lyons (NORTH CAROLINA) def. Kaitlin Ray (UCLA), 3-6, 6-4, 7-5
Men’s Final: #1 USC (32-3) def. #2 OKLAHOMA (28-4), 4-2 - Henry Feild Stadium
Doubles (Order of finish: 3,2)
1. #1 Yannick Hanfmann/Ray Sarmiento (USC) vs. Axel Alvarez/Dane Webb (OKLAHOMA) 5-6, unf.
2. Guillermo Alcorta/Andrew Harris (OKLAHOMA) def. Connor Farren/Roberto Quiroz (USC), 8-5
3. Alex Ghilea/Nick Papac (OKLAHOMA) def. Max de Vroome/Eric Johnson (USC), 8-7(2)
Singles (Order of finish: 3,1,2,5,4)
1. #10 Yannick Hanfmann (USC) def. #5 Guillermo Alcorta (OKLAHOMA), 7-5, 6-2
2. #9 Ray Sarmiento (USC) def. #7 Axel Alvarez (OKLAHOMA), 6-4, 7-6(4)
3. #41 Dane Webb (OKLAHOMA) def. #42 Roberto Quiroz (USC), 6-1, 6-2
4. #91 Max de Vroome (USC) def. #53 Andrew Harris (OKLAHOMA), 4-6, 6-3, 6-4
5. Eric Johnson (USC) def. Austin Siegel (OKLAHOMA), 6-1, 7-6(2)
6. Michael Grant (USC) vs. Alex Ghilea (OKLAHOMA), 7-6(5), 2-6, 4-2, unf.