Florida, USC claim NCAA titles with dramatic 4-3 wins

May 25, 2011 05:31 AM
By Colette Lewis, special to USTA.com

-- If any of the 2,863 spectators at Stanford University’s Taube Family Tennis Center were attending a college tennis match for the first time Tuesday, they are now undoubtedly fans for life.

In two excruciatingly exciting 4-3 matches, the second-seeded Southern California men claimed their third consecutive team championship over top seed and undefeated Virginia, while the University of Florida women, also seeded No. 2, avenged last year’s heartbreaking loss to top seed and undefeated Stanford, ending the longest home winning streak in NCAA history.

Florida sophomore Lauren Embree trailed 5-7, 6-3, 4-0 in the final set of her match against Stanford sophomore Mallory Burdette at No. 2, a match the Gators had to win. Florida’s Alex Cercone had just defeated Veronica Li, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, at No. 5 to make the score 3-2, while Olivia Janowicz had just earned a third set against Stanford’s Carolyn McVeigh at No. 6.
Although that 4-0 deficit might have seemed a deep hole to those who aren’t familiar with Embree, both Burdette, a long-time junior rival, and Embree’s teammates knew better than to count her out.

Embree held serve, broke Burdette at love, held and again broke a sagging Burdette at love, and suddenly it was 4-4. By this time, at the far reaches of the stadium, Janowicz had taken a 4-0 lead on McVeigh, so the next few games would be critical in deciding the championship.

Embree held again to make it 5-4, and Burdette looked as if she would lose her sixth straight game when she got down two match points at 15-40. But Burdette saved both, ending her spiral with a forehand volley winner. The Stanford crowd, having fallen silent during the lengthy stretch of Burdette errors, began to regain their voices.

Embree held again for 6-5, while Janowicz had worked her way to a 5-1 lead on court 6. Burdette, serving to stay in the match, fell behind 0-30 but held with the assist of a let cord on an overhead and a forehand winner.

The tiebreaker had just begun when Janowicz completed her 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1 victory, assuring every eye in the stadium would be on court 2 as the sun set and the lights came on.

Embree led 4-2 at the changeover, but Burdette hit two aggressive volley winners to pull even. After Burdette missed a forehand return and netted another forehand, Embree had two more match points. Glancing over at her coach and teammates, Embree’s eyes said she was ready to finish this time, but Burdette again denied her, hitting a good first serve and forehand winner to make it 6-5. Embree saw chance No. 4 evaporate when her defensive lob went just long, and the crowd again raised its decibel level in support.

In the deciding match of the 2010 Team Championship in Athens, it was Burdette who came up with all the big shots against Florida’s Marrit Boonstra, but she couldn’t summon that magic again. She missed an overhead badly to give Embree her fifth and last match point, and when Burdette sent a forehand long, the Stanford fans were left to silently contemplate the team’s first home loss since February 1999.

It had looked promising for the Cardinal, when, despite the loss of the doubles point, they had taken the lead with wins by Hilary Barte, who beat Allie Will, 6-2, 6-4, at No. 1, Nicole Gibbs, who defeated Sofie Oyen, 6-4, 7-5, at No. 3, and Stacey Tan, who outlasted Joanna Mather, 3-6, 6-2 6-4, at No. 4.

Cercone and Janowicz’s victories were every bit as important as Embree’s, but Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist knew whom he wanted on the court in a moment as pressure-packed as a tiebreaker to decide a national championship.

"When it came down to Lauren, I was thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got the one we want at the end,’" said Thornqvist, joking that the match had taken 10 years off his life.

"We found out why Stanford has a 12-year winning streak here," he said. "It’s really difficult to win here. It took a gutsy performance and everything we had to get it done, to push us through to victory. Thankfully, we had the superstar at the end."

Embree, from Marco Island, Fla., admitted that after the fourth match point, "it kind of got to me. But I knew if I kept fighting I would have another chance."

"Every match point she came up with huge shots," said Embree, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. "On some points, there was nothing I could do, but I knew if I had another chance I would eventually get it."

Thornqvist was obviously delighted with the Gators’ national title, their fifth overall and his second as head coach, but the memory of last year’s 4-3 loss to Stanford was still fresh.

"It resonated throughout the summer with all our players," Thornqvist said. "We wrote some letters to them, it was a deep hole to climb out of. I am so happy that Marrit was here and was able to help us win this one (as a student coach). And I’m hoping this win today can help heal her a little bit more from last year’s loss. I’m sure Mallory feels terrible now, and we feel great sympathy for her."

Burdette was fighting tears while on the press conference podium, flanked by teammate Barte and head coach Lele Forood.

"Obviously, it’s not as fun being on this side," Burdette said, her voice breaking. "But I had my game plan when I went out there today. I executed it pretty well for most of the match, and it came down to two points. I knew what she was going to do out there; it was just a matter of me executing. I’m pretty proud of the way I played but obviously came up a little short."

Forood, who described the atmosphere as the most electric in her experience, spoke matter-of-factly about the end of the winning streak, the longest in NCAA history in any sport.

"The streak doesn’t mean a lot to us," said Forood, who has led the Cardinal to six NCAA titles. "It’s interesting, but it’s not a motivating thing. It’s kind of fun, but it’s trivia for us, a little bit. We’re much more on the year-to-year."

The men’s team at University of Southern California has an impressive streak of its own going right now after winning their 18th straight NCAA match and third consecutive title.

"For some reason in LA, winning three is pretty tough," said USC head coach Peter Smith, mentioning the Lakers second-round loss in the NBA playoffs and the Trojan football team’s loss to Texas in the 2006 national title game.

But with junior Daniel Nguyen, Smith has his own Kobe Bryant – the go-to guy when the title is on the line. After Virginia had mounted a furious comeback to level the match after trailing 3-0, the championship would be decided on court 3, where Nguyen and Cavalier senior Sanam Singh were fighting for the last point.

USC had taken the doubles point with little resistance from Virginia and quickly added a second point with Emilio Gomez’s 6-0, 6-3 victory over Justin Shane at No. 5. Trojan junior Steve Johnson, the tournament’s most outstanding player, defeated Michael Shabaz, 7-6 (2), 6-3, at No. 1, but the five first sets that USC won were not holding up. Alex Domijan, Singh and Jarmere Jenkins all forced third sets, while Peter Lucassen of USC also evened his match with Julien Uriguen at No. 6.

Shortly after Johnson made it 3-0, Domijan collected a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory from Jaak Poldma at No. 2, with Uriguen completing a 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 win to make it 3-2. Jenkins and Raymond Sarmiento were at nearly the same stage in their match at No. 4 as Nguyen and Singh, with Jenkins up a break.

Nguyen got his break when Singh double faulted serving at 2-3 and held to take a 5-2 lead. After his performance as a freshman in the Trojans’ 2009 title match and his clinch over Tennessee last year, Nguyen had earned his reputation as a closer, but there certainly was drama yet to come.

At 2-5, Singh saved a match point with a good serve down the T that Nguyen pulled wide, then held to make it 5-3. Serving for the match, Nguyen didn’t get another match point, but he did save four break points before finally surrendering the game, putting Singh back on serve.

Down 0-15, Singh was the victim of an ESPN Sports Center Top Ten play when Nguyen reacted to a perfectly executed Singh volley with a desperate forehand dive that somehow cleared the net.

"I hit probably the best volley I’ve hit all tournament," said Singh, a senior from India. "From my feet, behind my body, I just swung at it, and he dove and got it back. It caught me by surprise, and I hit the net tape again."

At 15-40 Singh saved his second match point with a drop-shot winner, but Nguyen, who had played less confidently when he was serving, forced the action, putting away a backhand volley to post a 7-5, 0-6, 6-4 win. The Trojans had earned their third championship in a row, the only team other than Stanford to accomplish that, and their 19th national team championship overall.

"It was an amazing atmosphere out there, unbelievably loud, very tough to focus," said Nguyen, from Oxnard, Calif. "I just seized the moment and took advantage of that situation."

Smith, smiling on the sidelines of the Nguyen match despite the stakes, insists that his players appreciate the excitement in moments like these.

"I just enjoyed the atmosphere so much today," Smith said. "I told them to enjoy it and just live it. To have crowds like that, to have our band out, wow. Last year we had 10 people against 1,000 Tennessee people, so it was pretty cool to share it with our fans and the band."

For Virginia coach Brian Boland, losing to Southern California for the third straight year was painful, but he expressed pride in the way his team came back.

"It was a great fight by our guys," said Boland. "We lost what, five out of six sets, lost the doubles point, and it was a huge momentum change to get it back to 3-all. What a great credit to our guys, tremendous fight. It just came down to getting back on serve at 4-5 in the third and a few net cords, an incredible second point by Daniel Nguyen, wow. That’s what makes it great. That’s why we’re all here. Somebody had to lose a tough match, and it just so happens to be us tonight, so we’ll just get ready for the individual tournament and keep our heads up."

The NCAA individual singles and doubles tournaments begin on Wednesday, with USC Steve Johnson and Cal-Berkeley’s Jana Juricova as the top seeds.