By Chris Starrs special to USTA.com
ATHENS, Ga. -- In the men's singles semifinals of the NCAA Tennis Championships, one of the four names listed to compete today really stands out.
Of course, we're talking about Southern California's Steve Johnson, the No. 1 seed and No. 1 ranked player in the nation. On Saturday, he bounced Virginia's Alex Domijan 6-0, 5-7, 6-1 to advance to the semis and collect his 70th consecutive singles victory.
Johnson -- who is feeling the effects of both the heat and bodily wear and tear, as are many other competitors -- had a stout three-set challenge from the 6-foot-7 sophomore Domijan, who upset No. 6 Evan King in the first round.
"I’ve always enjoyed watching him play," said Johnson of Domijan. "He’s a big guy who strikes the ball really clean, so I tried my best just to move him around and get him in positions that were uncomfortable for him. I think in the end it worked well and I’m glad it worked out. I thought I played well, but he started serving a lot better in the second set, so I didn’t get as many looks as I did in the first set, but to his credit he came back and fought after a 6-0 first set and in the third set."
"(Johnson) didn’t serve well, but with a lot of days of matches, they add up," said USC coach Peter Smith. "A lot of parts of his body are hurting. It was a very gutsy performance. You don’t win as many times as he has without a lot of guts. He really dug deep in that third set, and both of them did. Alex played great in that second set."
Don't forget Klahn
There is another name on that final four list that also stands out. It's Bradley Klahn of Stanford, who among fellow semifinalists Johnson (No. 1), Eric Quigley of Kentucky (No. 3) and No. 9 Blaz Rola of Ohio State, Klahn goes into today's semis as the No. 36 player in the country.
Klahn's low ranking wasn't matched by low regard. Back surgery last year put Klahn on the shelf until February, so he wasn't able to build his credentials as rapidly as his competitors. But make no mistake the 2010 national champion is ready to make a run for the finish line. He defeated No. 4 Jamere Jenkins of Virginia in the opening round, topped Ohio State's No. 9-16 Chase Buchannan in the round of 16 and on Saturday took a straight-set win over Nik Scholtz of Ole Miss.
"When you’re in the NCAAs, no matter what round it is, you can expect a dogfight with the top collegiate players, especially in the quarterfinals," said Klahn, who earned his national title in Athens. "Two years ago when I won it, I played an Ole Miss guy on this exact same court. I started a little sluggish and the first set was about the same amount of time but I lost."
And wouldn't you know it, the two guys whose names stand out will meet today at 1:30 p.m. to determine who goes to the title game on Memorial Day.
Both Johnson -- who led the Trojans to the team title on Wednesday morning -- and Klahn are worn to the core, but they're ready to go again today.
"My body is breaking down a little bit," said Johnson, who made up the No. 2 doubles team with Robert Quiroz. "It’s just the normal wear and tear after 10 days of playing tennis or whatever it is. But everyone’s in the same boat so, I’ll get ready to be ready to battle tomorrow... The heat is getting to me. We’re obviously not used to this humidity out in Southern California but I feel I’ve kind of adjusted pretty well since being here two weeks."
"(Friday) was a long day of tennis," said Klahn, who also plays doubles. "I think I logged about five-and-a-half hours on the court, but my fitness is feeling pretty good. Health-wise, I couldn’t be happier with the way my back is holding up this week and I guess it’s been improving through the last few months. It’s hot today, so it’s nice to get a straight-set win and get off the court quickly against a great opponent."
Neither Johnson nor Klahn will have a doubles match to play later in the day. On Saturday, Johnson and Quiroz were upset by No. 18 Raony Carvalho and Gonzalo Escobar of Texas Tech 6-3, 6-2. In the last match of the evening, Klahn and his partner Ryan Thatcher -- who were seeded No. 4 -- lost to No. 10 Costin Paval and Dane Webb of Oklahoma 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-3.
Today's other matches
The other semifinal men's singles match will pit No. 3 Quigley against No. 9 Rola. On Saturday, Rola and Buchanan ousted Quigley and partner Panav Jha from the doubles quarterfinals, making Rola the only men's player who won both singles and doubles on the day. He bested No. 2 Mitchell Frank of Virginia on Saturday.
Today's doubles matches pit the top-seeded Buchanan and Rola against Pavel and Webb from Oklahoma, and No. 17 Chris Thiemann and Marcel Thiemann from Ole Miss -- senior brothers -- against Carvalho and Escobar.
On the women's side, three of today's four participants in the singles semifinals also played doubles matches on Saturday, and all three won, guaranteeing another long, hot day.
Stanford's No. 5 Mallory Burnette had her third quick tournament match in a row, dispatching No. 2 Beatrice Capra of Duke 6-3, 6-2. On the next court over, her teammate Nicole Gibbs endured a third day of scrapping, defeating Stanford's No. 8 Jana Juricova of California 7-6 (1), 7-6 (6). Juricova is the defending women's singles champion.
Burnette has enjoyed much success in Athens, playing on the title-winning team in 2010 and winning the doubles crown last year (with Hillary Bart). Her family owns a house in town as her brother and sister are recent graduates of the University of Georgia's veterenarian school.
"I hope Athens is lucky for me again," she said. "I love playing here. It’s a great facility and my family is here. I can go hang out at our house after matches. It took me a little while to adjust to the heat when we first got here, but I’ve been drinking as much as my body can hold and we’ve been using the RTX hand device (to cool body temperature) and it’s been great."
Today's other matches
In women's singles, three of four contestants are ranked in the top eight, No. 1 Allie Will of Florida (who defeated Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar of Texas A&M, 6-3, 6-3), Gibbs and Burnette. The fourth competitor is No. 13 Zsofi Susanyi of California.
Today, Will of Florida -- who beat No. 6 Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar oif Texas A&M 6-3, 6-3 -- will face Gibbs. And Burdette will meet Susanyi.
Susanyi and Juricova, ranked No. 15, also played doubles Saturday, but ran into the tandem of No. 27 Chelsey Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist, from host Georgia. Gullickson and Gilchrist, both seniors, will meet No. 9 Courtney Dolehide and Pamela Montez of UCLA, who beat No. 13 Ema Burgic and Nina Secerbegovic of Baylor 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
On the other side of the doubles bracket, Burdette and Gibbs -- seeded third -- will face No. 10 Natalie Pluskota and Kata Szekely of Tennessee, who on Saturday beat No. 22 Lauren Embree and Joanna Mather in a grueling 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (3) match.