Johnson, Gibbs reach NCAA quarterfinals via tiebreakers

May 28, 2011 05:54 AM
By Colette Lewis, special to

-- Stanford’s Nicole Gibbs trailed No. 6 seed Allie Will of Florida 5-1 in the final set of their third-round match Friday, and despite her reputation as a fierce competitor, the 18-year-old freshman was about to pack it in.

Her teammates and local fans had seen her squander a 6-3, 5-2 lead, drop the second-set tiebreaker to the Gator sophomore and lose game after game in the third. But they stuck with her through the 3-hour, 52-minute match, and Gibbs gave them the credit for her 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3) win.

"The fan support was unreal," said Gibbs. "They are 100 percent the reason I pulled through. At 5-1, I was pretty resigned, but I just stayed out there. The first match point was probably the most dejected I was, but I got really lucky and hit one of the best serves of the match and got a free point."

Will served for the match three times in the third set, at 5-2, 5-4 and 6-5, but the three match points Gibbs saved came when she was serving at 3-5.

Looking for her forehand at every opportunity, Gibbs hit winners from that side on each match point, which isn’t easy to accomplish with Will’s excellent defensive ability.

With all the momentum on her side after winning four straight games, Gibbs then faced another challenge.

"I started cramping in my hand at 5-all serving, and then it moved into my left calf early in the tiebreak. But it was very sporadic, so I was able to keep stretching it, and it was affecting me intermittently throughout the points, so I was just trying to end points as quickly as possible, which isn’t an easy feat against her."

At 3-3 in the tiebreaker, Gibbs snuck into the net and guided a volley into the open court. A big Gibbs forehand forced Will’s forehand reply just long, and an errant backhand gave Gibbs her first match point at 6-3.

Gibbs worked herself into position and blasted a forehand winner deep in the backhand corner, ending what Stanford head coach Lele Forood called a "titanic" battle.

Gibbs will play teammate Hilary Barte in the quarterfinals. The third-seeded Barte beat Maria Mosolova of Northwestern, a ninth seed, 6-3, 6-2.

Top-seed Steve Johnson of Southern California and JP Smith of Tennessee, seeded ninth, provided the early morning drama, with Johnson claiming a 7-6 (3), 3-6, 7-6 (2) victory, to keep alive his quest to add an individual title to USC’s three consecutive team championships.

Smith played outstanding tennis throughout the match and led 4-2 in the final set, but Johnson scrambled his way back, saving a break point down 2-4, then breaking Smith in the next game to pull even. Smith’s serve was the culprit in that critical break, with Johnson getting a look at second serves in six of the eight points.

When the match reached the final tiebreaker, Johnson elevated his game, making every first serve and finishing with an ace and a service winner.

"At 5-2, I knew it was over," said USC head coach Peter Smith. "I’ve just seen it too many times."

Johnson said he might have lost his focus in the second set and got a little lucky in the seventh and eighth games of the third but didn’t indulge in any false modesty about his play in the two tiebreakers.

"I played two unbelievable breakers today, which was key," Johnson said. "I don’t think I missed a first serve and got free points off my serve, which in a breaker is such an advantage."

Smith, only the second player in Division I college tennis history to be named an All-American eight times, regretted not taking his opportunities.

"I had my chances, especially in the third set, that I didn’t convert on," said Smith, a senior from Australia. "I just wish I could have done a few things different, but I’ll keep it in the memory bank for the future."

Johnson’s quarterfinal opponent is No. 5 seed Blaz Rola of Ohio State, who defeated unseeded Evan King of Michigan, 6-3, 6-0.

Defending champion Bradley Klahn of Stanford, seeded ninth, also needed a comeback, trailing Jose Hernandez of North Carolina 4-2 in the final set before recovering for a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 victory.

At one stage of the match, between the sixth and 10th games of the third set, Klahn won 14 straight points, with the unseeded Hernandez making error after error as the match slipped away.

"At 4-2 down, I thought I took my game to another level," said Klahn, a junior. "I didn’t give him any free points, and he gave me a few errors there."

Klahn will face Tennessee’s Rhyne Williams, the fourth seed, who defeated ninth seed Guillermo Gomez of Georgia Tech, 7-5, 6-4. Strangely, the two 20-year-olds haven’t met in six years, despite parallel careers in juniors and college.

"It’s going to be a tough match tomorrow," said Klahn. "I’ve grown up with him. He’s playing well, so it’ll be a battle."

An all-Tennessee semifinal is possible, with Tennys Sandgren also reaching the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 7-6 (4) win over Sebastian Fanselow of Pepperdine. The unseeded Sandgren, a sophomore, will need to get past Marcel Thiemann of Ole Miss, who reached the quarterfinals for the second consecutive year with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Raymond Sarmiento of USC.

The fourth quarterfinal finds No. 3 seed Michael Shabaz of Virginia against No. 8 seed Henrique Cunha of Duke. Shabaz beat 2010 finalist Austen Childs of Louisville, 7-5, 6-4, while Cunha fought back to take a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 decision over ninth seed Dennis Nevolo of Illinois.

The marquee contest of the women’s quarterfinals is a rematch of the 2010 final, with Georgia’s unseeded Chelsey Gullickson, last year’s champion, meeting this year’s top seed Jana Juricova of Cal-Berkeley. 
Gullickson defeated Juricova in a dramatic comeback after falling behind 4-1 in the third set to lead Georgia to a 4-3 victory over Cal in the first round of the team tournament.

On Friday, Gullickson defeated ninth seed Zoe De Bruycker of North Carolina, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2, her third consecutive three-set win, while Juricova picked up another routine victory, beating ninth seed Venise Chan of Washington, 6-3, 6-2.

The Pac-10 can claim five of the eight women’s quarterfinalists, including a third Stanford player, unseeded Stacey Tan. Tan defeated Texas’s Aeriel Ellis, 6-4, 7-6 (6), to set up a meeting with Baylor’s Nina Secerbegovic, who downed Lindsey Hardenbergh of Virginia, 6-2, 6-3.

Mari Andersson of Cal-Berkeley will meet the team championship’s most outstanding player Lauren Embree in another battle of unseeded players. Embree cruised past Indiana’s Leslie Hureau, 6-1, 6-0; Andersson beat ninth seed Jacqueline Cako of Arizona State, 6-3, 6-0.

Two of the top contenders for the men’s doubles title were eliminated Friday, with top seeds Smith and Boris Conkic of Tennessee and defending champions Shabaz and Drew Courtney of Virginia bowing out.

Georgia Tech’s Kevin King and Juan Spir defeated Smith and Conkic, 6-3, 6-4, while Florida State’s Vahid Mirzadeh and Connor Smith took down the No. 2 seeds Shabaz and Courtney, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1.

Saturday’s quarterfinal action begins at noon Pacific time.