By Chris Starrs special to USTA.com
ATHENS, Ga. -- Although he found himself in a couple precarious spots and was clearly affected by a variety of ailments that come from nearly 12 straight days of tennis, Southern California's Steve Johnson had little trouble claiming his second consecutive NCAA men's singles championship Monday.
The top-seeded and top-ranked Johnson, who completes his collegiate career on a 72-game winning streak, defeated Kentucky's No. 3 Eric Quigley, 6-4, 6-4, to collect the fourth singles title in USC men's tennis history. Other winners include Robert van't Hof (in 1980) and Cecil Mamiit (in 1996). Interestingly enough, both van't Hof and Mamiit won their championships in Athens.
In 2011, Johnson bested Tennessee's Rhyne Williams, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, to win his first singles crown.
In the first set, Johnson dropped the first point, and he and Quigley traded service points until the Trojan senior broke the Wildcat senior at 5-4 and won the next point to take the set. He suffered one Quigley break in the second set but had a big break to go up 4-3.
Johnson led the Trojans to their fourth consecutive national team title in the early morning hours of May 23 and has been almost a daily presence during the 12-day tournament. After his match Monday, Johnson expressed exhausted happiness at closure.
"I'm glad to be done with this whole tournament," he said. "It's been a stressful couple of weeks, but today's match is a testament to all the hard work I've put in with (USC coach) Peter (Smith), (associate head coach) George (Husack) and our training staff. To go out there and get one break each set all the way through was key, and I'm glad I got through it."
Johnson is probably going to take an extended vacation from tennis, although he'd likely be back at it in time for the US Open, which by virtue of winning the NCAA title merits USTA wild-card consideration.
"No one will ever know how hurt he was," said Smith. "He has been hurt. He had food poisioning last week. He's probably not going to play for four to six weeks right now. He's got a real bad shin issue that's turning into a stress fracture. Against (Virginia's Alex) Domijan (in the semifinals), he hurt his abs, and that just kept getting worse and worse, but I knew that if he could see the finish line that he would get through it because that's what kind of kid he is."
Quigley said he was happy he was able to hang with Johnson as long as he did.
"I thought I was right in there," he said. "I served pretty well, except for a couple of points that I got broken on. (Johnson) came up with some big serves to hold. I'm just really proud that I made the finals, and I'm pretty pleased with the way I played today. Steve isn't a terrible loss for me, by any means."
Apart and together
Stanford's Nicole Gibbs and Mallory Burdette knew they were in for a long and difficult Monday. Besides playing for the women's doubles championship in the late afternoon, the Cardinal pair had to face each other at high noon for the singles title.
Gibbs beat Florida's No. 1 Allie Will to reach the finals, while her teammate and doubles partner Burdette downed California's Zsofi Susanyi in the semis to move forward. While neither relished the idea of playing each other, there was a title on the line, which was the top priority.
Burdette, who played quick straight-set matches throughout the singles tournament, needed less that 45 minutes to close out the first set at 6-2 in her favor. In the second set, she broke Gibbs at 4-1, but the sophomore fought back, breaking Burdette at 6-6 to force a tiebreaker.
In the tiebreaker, Burdette was up 5-2, and the wheels came off, as Gibbs proceeded to pick up five consecutive points to claim the match.
"I made a couple of errors. I definitely helped (Gibbs) out there at the end of the tiebreaker with my errors, but I just didn't have the guts to finish it today," said Burdette.
In the third set, Gibbs seemed to get stronger while Burdette faltered.
"(Playing three-set matches) provided me with every advantage today," said Gibbs. "A lot of people were asking me how I felt about that scenario coming into this match because they thought (Burdette) would have the physical advantage going into the final, but I was thinking I was very mentally, if not physically, conditioned. I've been through every possible scenario this week. I saw a loss around the corner in the second round against (Florida's Joanna) Mather, and I was able to fight my way back into it, so I knew I had it in me today, and that proved to be very crucial."
"I was feeling it a little bit out there, but Gibbsy is really good at stepping it up when her opponent is about to close it out," said Burdette. "That's her specialty, and she definitely made it tough out there for me at the end."
Like Johnson, Gibbs could draw a USTA invitation to the US Open as a wild-card entrant.
Not long after their singles clash, Burdette and Gibbs were back on the same side again, squaring off in the doubles final against Georgia's No. 27 Chelsey Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist, playing their final college match at home.
The Cardinal pair displayed no signs of fatigue -- physical or otherwise -- as they went right after Gullickson and Gilchrist.
"We played great from the very beginning today," said Burdette, who won her second consecutive doubles championship (she won in 2011 with Hilary Barte). "After our singles match, we were both feeling the ball well in our returns, and Mallory was doing a great job, as always, of cutting balls off at the net, and that's when we're at our best."
Burdette and Gibbs stormed to a 1-4 lead in the first set and dropped the Bulldogs before they knew what hit them.
"You could tell that they were warmed up from their singles match," said Gullickson. "Nadja and I just kind of started off slow a little bit."
The second set was a little more interesting, but Gullickson and Gilchrist would have needed to play better just to stay close to the fire-up Stanford team.
"I think one thing that we were really doing well earlier in the week was our returns," said Gullickson, who leaves Georgia as the tennis program's most decorated athlete, with eight All-America honors. "That really helped us get here. Today we just missed a lot of easy returns that we should have made. I missed a few volley opportunities that could have changed the course of the match a little, but it didn't go the way I wanted it to."
Stanford coach Lele Forood, who sat in the stands to watch her players do battle in singles, could not have been happier with the day's developments.
"Today's probably one of the biggest days in our program's history," she said. "It's very exciting, especially because no one's graduating. So we go forward from here. It's quite an amazing day. It's hard to play your teammate in such a big tournament, and then to come back and double with them to a title is a testament to how mature they both are and that they could do what they had to do today."
Ohio State's top-seeded and top-ranked doubles team of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola made history Monday with their 7-6 (4), 6-2 championship victory over Texas Tech's Raony Carvahlo and Gonzalo Escobar.
With Monday's win, Buchanan and Rola become the first team to claim the "triple crown" of college championships, winning the D’Novo/ITA All-America Championships last October, the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships in November and the NCAA Championships.
"I didn't think about it all this year, even up until yesterday when somebody told me we had a chance to do it," said Buchanan, a senior. "I didn't think about it until the last game was 30-0, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh, we might do it.'"
The Buckeye tandem -- both of whom logged extensive set-time in the singles tournament before being eliminated -- began their match with the Red Raiders outdoors, but the match was moved indoors when rainy weather set in.
At the time the match was moved, Ohio State held a slim 5-4 lead in the first set. The two teams traded points until they were knotted at 6-6, and Buchanan, a senior, and Rola, a sophomore, seized the tiebreaker. The second match took around 30 minutes, as Ohio State did not allow a break point while snatching one from Texas Tech.
Buckeyes coach Ty Tucker said Buchanan and Rola's victory on Monday was the culmination of a stressful year of being a moving target.
"They've done a great job all season, understanding that being No. 1 in the country, everybody knows if you beat them, you make the NCAA tournament," he said. "They never got a day off. They always came for the challenge, and I felt pretty good because they'd been so solid through eight games, but we thought we were a better two-out-of-three set team.
"We felt in an eight-team pro set, anything can happen. We thought it would take somebody to have to play 90 minutes of some great doubles, (Buchanan and Rola) return so well and compliment each other so well. It's unbelievable what they did. I'm so happy for them, especially Chase."
Although defeated by a much more accomplished team, the unseeded Carvahlo and Escobar gave a good accounting for themselves, beating teams from Tennessee and California in the first two rounds of the doubles tournament and then pulling off a huge upset of USC's No. 2 Johnson and his partner, freshman Robert Quiroz in the quarterfinals, when Johnson retired with the Red Raiders ahead, 6-2, 3-2.
The Texas Tech duo went farther in the doubles tournament than a Red Raiders team has ever done before.
"We have two incredible seniors that had four amazing years at Texas Tech and put us on a map that we've never been on before," said coach Jim Siegel. "I'm sitting with two All-Americans in singles and two guys who reached the NCAA finals in doubles. A great day, a great year and a great career for these two guys."