Women’s NCAA Sweet 16 action begins with top seeds tested

May 21, 2011 06:01 AM
By Colette Lewis, special to USTA.com

-- The NCAA Division I Women’s Team Championships began Friday with a slew of hotly contested matches in the round of 16.

The temperatures weren’t warm when No. 14 seed Georgia Tech and No. 3 seed Duke took the courts at the Taube Family Tennis Center on the Stanford University campus for a 9 a.m. match, but the Yellow Jackets came out blazing in the doubles competition with their ACC rivals.

Blue Devils Head Coach Jamie Ashworth minced no words in describing his team’s performance in the three doubles matches, calling it "horrible."

"It was just fundamental stuff that we didn't do a good job on. But we did a great job in singles."

Georgia Tech got wins from Jillian O’Neill and Lynn Blau, while Duke earned victories from Rachel Kahan, Ellah Nze and Mary Clayton, leaving the match to be decided on Court 3, where Duke’s Reka Zsilinszka and Georgia Tech’s Christina Ngo were on serve, 2-1, in the third set. Zsilinszka, a senior from North Carolina who was the tournament MVP when Duke won the NCAA title in 2009, is very comfortable in a deciding match.

"I talked about this with my teammates; I really like being the last match on," Zsilinszka said. "I feel really good about it. I feel comfortable, and I like that the attention's on me. It's very heartbreaking when you lose those, but it's literally the best feeling when you can win it."

Zsilinszka had dropped the first set, 6-4, making more errors than usual, but she found her rhythm and won the second, 6-0. Ngo, a junior from Vietnam, continued to try to counteract the moonball strategy that Zsilinszka employs by coming forward and finishing. But Zsilinszka hit lob and topspin passes with regularity, and Ngo's overhead was not entirely reliable.

At 3-3, Zsilinszka broke Ngo, held at love for 5-3 and broke again for the win, which came nearly four hours after the match started on the sunny and cool morning.

Advancing to the quarterfinals obviously meant a lot to an emotional Ashworth.

"We haven't won a match like that in a long time," Ashworth said, wiping tears from his eyes. "For Reka to be able to do that after the ACC (tournament) was huge. I told her after she lost the last match at ACCs (against Florida State) that she would be in that situation again, and I can't tell you how proud of them I am."

Duke’s opponent in Sunday’s quarterfinals is No. 6 seed UCLA, a 4-1 winner over No. 11 Virginia in another match that took nearly four hours to complete.

Second seed Florida looked to be on the verge of suffering a stunning upset in their match with No. 15 Clemson before recovering for an exhausting 4-1 victory. Although the Gators, the 2010 NCAA finalists, won the doubles point, Clemson stormed through the first sets of singles, winning five to Florida’s one. 

"It's been a long time since we've been tested like that," said Florida Head Coach Roland Thornqvist. "It was probably the finals of the Indoors against Stanford," with that loss the sole blemish on Florida’s record this year.

Florida’s Lauren Embree started the comeback with a three-set win at No. 2, after Clemson’s Klara Vyskocilova had won at No. 3. With the score 2-1 Florida, the other four matches still on court were all in the third set. Florida got its third point from Joanna Mather at No. 4, when she came back for an 0-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Nelly Ciolkowski. Allie Will and Clemson’s Josipa Bek were still battling on Court 1, but Bek had taken a 4-0 lead in the third set, leaving the final point to come from Courts 5 or 6.

Florida's Alex Cercone and Maria Belaya were deep in their third set at 5, and Carol Hitmana had just broken to take a 3-2 lead in her match with Clemson's Caroline Magnusson at 6. Belaya served for the match at 6-5 but was broken at love to send it to a tiebreaker. There were no breaks in the tiebreaker until Belaya double faulted at 4-5, but Cercone couldn't convert on her first match point, with Belaya hitting a forehand winner that Cercone argued was out. The chair ruled Cercone hadn't made a call, however, so it was 6-5 with Cercone serving. In the meantime, Hitmana had also reached match point at 5-2, and both points were in progress when, after a lengthy rally, Belaya netted a forehand to give Florida the hard-earned victory.

"I thought we won today with our legs and our heads, more so than with our strokes," said Thornqvist. "The fact that we were tested, we were nervous, and we were able to hang in there in some spots and turn it around by doing some smart things, I was happy to see that."

Florida will meet No. 7 seed Miami in the quarterfinals, after the Hurricanes beat No. 10 Michigan, 4-2.

"Being down four match points at No. 1 doubles and being able to find a way to get that done obviously was the changer in the match," said Miami Head Coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews. "A little luck along the way never hurts."

Miami Kayla Rizzolo clinched the match for the Hurricanes.

"I think she has ice in her veins," Yaroshuk-Tews said of the young Floridian, who closed out the Miami victory with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over fellow freshman Samantha Critser.

"She's stoic out there. She's so poised, so put together," Yaroshuk-Tews continued. "She played great tennis there in the second and third sets, and emotions with Kayla really aren't an issue. She goes after her shots, she plays her tennis. She doesn't change her game based on the situation, and she's mature beyond her years."

Because of the length of the early contests, the final four matches of the day were set back several hours. No. 5 Baylor defeated unseeded SMU, 4-0, and will meet No. 4 North Carolina in the quarterfinals. The Tar Heels also didn’t surrender a point, blanking unseeded Vanderbilt.

Top seed Stanford didn’t take the courts until after 9 p.m., and after losing the doubles point to Northwestern, the Cardinal found themselves in a serious battle with the No. 16-seeded Wildcats. In a match that finished after 1:30 a.m., Stanford advanced to the quarterfinals with a 4-2 win, extending their home winning streak to 182 matches.

The Cardinal will face No. 8 seed Georgia, who won yet another exciting battle, taking out No. 9 seed Cal-Berkeley, 4-3.

Chelsey Gullickson clinched the match for Georgia at No. 1 singles, coming from 4-1 down in the final set against Jana Juricova to earn a 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory.