Top seeds Johnson, Juricova claim NCAA titles

May 31, 2011 07:32 AM
By Colette Lewis, special to

-- The University of Southern California's Steve Johnson may have his playoff mustache a bit longer. Vowing not to shave it until a loss, the junior from Orange, Calif., went undefeated in his 12 days at the Taube Family Tennis Center.

After leading USC to its third consecutive team championship last Tuesday, the top seed, healthy and grateful for the cool Northern California weather, relaxed and swung away in the individual tournament. That, too, ended in a championship, with his 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Tennessee's Rhyne Williams in Monday afternoon's singles final.

"I was more nervous for the team event than I was today," said Johnson, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. "The goal the whole year was to win the team thing, and I felt like there was a lot more pressure on my shoulders there than there was today. Today was just another match, and I went out there and stayed focused. I didn't let myself get down after that first set."

Johnson was broken at love in the first game of the match, and with Williams, a sophomore from Knoxville, Tenn., hitting outright winners and serving well throughout the first set, the break held up.

But Johnson broke to open the second set and began serving more effectively himself, while the errors that were absent earlier began to creep into Williams' game.

"I served pretty well in the first set, but then maybe my legs died a little bit," said Williams, seeded fourth in the tournament. "I was a little tired from the match yesterday with Tennys (teammate Sandgren), so my serve kind of went downhill after the first set."

Johnson broke Williams for a second time to end the second set, giving him the advantage of serving first in the final set, but even when Johnson took a 2-0 lead in the third, Williams could take comfort in their previous meeting. In the final of the USTA/ITA National Indoor championships in New York last November, Williams trailed Johnson 2-0 in the third before coming back to take the final set 6-4 to dethrone Johnson, the defending champion.

"When I got up 2-0 in the third, I was going to do anything it took to hold," Johnson said.

It was his lethal forehand that did the job, with two clean winners securing that game to make it 3-0. Williams then held for 3-1, but he couldn't locate enough energy to reverse the course of the match, as he had done in New York.

"Woody (associate head coach Chris Woodruff) actually came out and reminded me of that," Williams said. "I tried to fight, but there really wasn't much left in the tank, sadly. He really stepped up his game in the second and third set, and I couldn't really hang."

A small but vocal group of USC supporters, including one with a sign reading "Fear the 'Stache", sensed Williams' fatigue, and their voices rose with excitement after Williams was broken to make it 5-1.

As Johnson stepped to the line to serve for the championship, there was no distraction from the women's final, which had finished on an adjacent court just a few minutes before. The Cardinal fans, who were the majority of the 1,763 spectators in attendance, had just witnessed Stacey Tan's valiant comeback fall short against Jana Jurikova of Cal, so they turned their attention to the end of the men's match while waiting for the award ceremony and doubles finals.

Johnson earned two match points when Williams' backhand went wide at 30-15 but failed to convert the first one when he netted a volley. But as it had all year, Johnson's serve came through on the next one, with a big first serve to Williams' backhand that he was unable to get back into play. After a short celebration and the handshake, Johnson sought out his mother in the stands and gave her a long hug as he accepted congratulations from friends and fans.

All underclassmen who earn NCAA singles championships face questions about returning to school, and Johnson is no different. With only three losses in the 2010-11 college season, a 35-match winning streak since January and the team and individual titles, Johnson has dominated college tennis this year. But despite USC head coach Peter Smith's belief that Johnson is ready for professional tennis now, it's possible he'll return for his senior year.

"It's weird being in this position because coming in as a freshman, I had no idea that as a team, we could win three national titles in a row," said Johnson, the first Trojan to win the singles championship since Cecil Mamiit in 1996. "Only the one Paul Goldstein Stanford team has won four. That's such an incredible opportunity, and I feel like I've been through it for three years with Daniel (Nguyen) and those guys, and I feel like we'll be back and better for next year. I really want to come back and win that fourth."

Johnson, now seven classes short of graduation, is planning to take the fall semester off to play professional tournaments as an amateur, beginning with two Pro Circuit Futures events in California next month. He also has a slightly bigger event on the horizon, with the US Open main-draw wild card that goes to an American NCAA champion.

"Every American (college player) I've talked to, that's your goal," said Johnson. "Win the NCAAs, and that's your ticket to the US Open, to play with the big boys and see how good you are."

In the women's final, top seed Juricova of Cal was returning to the final for the second consecutive year, and although she was again facing a local favorite on her home turf in Tan, the Taube Family Tennis Center courts gave her a certain level of comfort.

"We play so many matches at Stanford, and I've played so many matches on Court 1, it doesn't really feel like I'm playing away," said the junior from the Slovak Republic. "Especially because of the fans, I kind of feel like I'm playing at home, too."

Although the applause for Juricova's winning shots was not the same decibel level that Tan experienced, a substantial number of Cal fans made their way across the Bay, and they had plenty to cheer about in the first set, with Juricova blanking a nervous Tan, 6-0.

The second set was much closer, however, as Tan held in her first two service games and was able to get her first break of the 6-foot right-hander after Tan had dropped serve herself the previous game. 

Juricova, who had reached the last five national singles championships, served for her second collegiate major at 6-5 in the second set, but the unseeded Tan, who played No. 5 for Stanford most of the dual season, broke back to force a tiebreaker.

But as she had done against Stanford's Nicole Gibbs in the third-set tiebreaker that decided their semifinal, Juricova displayed her best serving of the match in the tiebreak, taking a 6-0 lead before Tan won a point.

"I decided to really go for it," Juricova said. "Take my best shot and really take time away from her. I decided to do that, and I think that's why the tiebreaker went so well."

Tan, a sophomore from Lakewood, Calif., was able to hit her share of winners once she got comfortable, but her serve was no match for Juricova's, who regularly teed off on Tan's serves.

"I feel she has a really powerful game," Tan said. "She has strong shots, especially her serve. But at the same time, she can be really consistent and knows how to reset points pretty well."

Tan saved two of the six match points against her, but Juricova claimed the title 6-0, 7-6 (2), when Tan's backhand failed to clear the net."

"I feel like she did step up, especially her serving points in the tiebreaker," Tan said. "She went for it more. It looked like she just started going for them, and they went in pretty well."

Cal coach Amanda Augustus was happy to see her player take charge in a final.

"That's something we've been focused on this entire semester but really probably since the final last year," said Augustus, who won NCAA doubles titles in 1998 and 1999. "She's gotten to the point when she's out there in these matches that she sees what's going on, sees the opportunities she can create with her game and is more trusting in herself and believing her game in a finals situation is enough."

With the win, Juricova could put aside the losses to Chelsey Gullickson in last year's NCAA final, to Hilary Barte in the All-American final and to Maria Sanchez in the USTA/ITA Indoor final and focus on her place in Cal tennis history, joining Suzi Babos as a national singles champion.

"She was in her last semester when I got here, and I remember she came and talked about how she won the title at Stanford (in 2006)," Juricova said. "I was really impressed, and I was like, 'Wow, I want to do that, too.'"

In the men's doubles championship, Jeff Dadamo and Austin Krajicek collected Texas A&M's first national tennis title when they downed No. 5 seeds Bradley Klahn and Ryan Thacher of Stanford, 7-6 (4), 6-3.

"I think we've had a good tournament all week," said Krajicek. "We served very well on these courts. They're playing a little faster, so they suited our games well."

Seniors Dadamo and Krajicek, the No. 3 seeds, won the USTA/ITA Indoor title last November, so the pair of left-handers will be leaving college tennis and heading to the professional circuit with two consecutive national championships on their resumes.

The expectation is that they will also receive a US Open main-draw wild card, which will not be a new experience for Krajicek, who received one in singles after he won the 2008 18s USTA Nationals in Kalamazoo.

"I can't wait to go back," said Krajicek. "I love New York; it's probably my favorite tournament. It's an incredible atmosphere, being an American and playing there."

Dadamo, who played the US Open Junior Championships, is also excited about the possibility.

"It's going to be a lot of fun and a pretty good atmosphere, obviously," Dadamo said. "It'll probably be a little easier out there playing doubles with my friend Austin and concentrating on the stuff we're trying to do on the court. But it'll definitely be a lot of fun."

In the women's doubles, Hilary Barte defended her title, which she won last year with Lindsay Burdette, with Burdette's younger sister Mallory. Barte and Burdette, seeded fourth, trailed Clemson's Josipa Bek and Keri Wong 6-1 in the first-set tiebreaker but won seven straight points and then six more consecutive games to take a 7-6 (6), 6-0 victory.

"They got a little bit tight, and we stepped it up," said Barte. "At 6-4, Mal hit a really great return and a great forehand, and I think that really turned the momentum in our favor."

Burdette, who now will have her name on the wall of champions, along with older sisters Erin and Lindsay, credited the crowd with assisting their comeback.

"The crowd was awesome," said Burdette. "Obviously, throughout the team event, the crowd was great, as well. I was very surprised how many people came out, and I'm very happy about that. It always makes things fun."

For Barte, ending her career with another doubles title took the edge off Stanford's 4-3 loss to Florida in the team final.

"I wish we could have won the team, and that would have made it a lot sweeter," Barte said. "But to go out (a champion) in my last match in a Stanford uniform, you couldn't write a better script."

Americans vie for NCAA titles