©Colette Lewis 2006
Palo Alto CA--
The PAC-10 conference earned collegiate tennis bragging rights on a brilliant Memorial Day afternoon, with Suzie Babos of California-Berkley and Ben Kohlloeffel of California-Los Angeles winning NCAA Individual Championships at the Taube Tennis Center on the campus of Stanford University.
Babos overpowered Lindsey Nelson of the University of Southern California 6-4, 6-1 to become the first women's champion in Cal's history, while Kohlloeffel gave the Bruins their first individual champion since UCLA head coach Billy Martin took the title in 1975.
Babos, a unseeded sophomore, had all kinds of trouble with her serve and the crowd in her semifinal win over Stanford's Theresa Logar on Sunday, but Monday's final saw a complete turnaround on both fronts.
With all Stanford players eliminated, there were fewer Cardinal fans in attendance, but the Cal supporters gathered behind court 3 and let loose with several "Go Bears" cheers throughout the brief (one hour and ten minute) match. And Nelson, also an unseeded sophomore, was unable to dent Babos' serve, failing to earn a single break in the match.
"She served amazing," said Nelson, who suffered an foot injury in the fall and was out with pneumonia this spring. "She's a strong lefty and she hardly missed. I hadn't played a lefty all week and I wasn't as prepared as I would have liked. She pulled out really great shots at the right time."
Nelson hits with two-hands on both sides, and her flat deep groundstrokes gave all her previous opponents difficulty, including top seed Audra Cohen, whom Nelson beat in the round of 16. Babos seemed oblivious to Nelson's unorthodox forehand, and she stayed with Nelson in every baseline rally. Babos also gave credit to an improved mental outlook while working with a sports psychologist hired by the Cal athletic department.
"Coming into Cal as a freshman, I was a mess mentally," said Babos. "I couldn't handle my nerves. I was really negative and sarcastic, really critical of my game. But now I stay positive, take one point at a time, not even thinking about the next one until the point is over."
But when she came out strong, breaking Nelson and holding at the outset of the second set, she did admit to feeling in control of the match.
"She started hitting bigger, which was out of her range, and she started missing more," said 21-year-old from Hungary. "By the time it was 2-0 down, I think she never believed she could come back."
Nelson was proud of her run in the tournament, both with USC reaching the semifinals in the team competition, and her appearance in the final. As for the disappointment, she philosophically called it a "learning experience."
"I was so nervous and so excited," the spindly California native said. "She played a really great match, she hit a great ball, and I couldn't get back in there. I froze up I didn't play as well as I'd like to. I wish I could play it over again right now."
The men's final, which was played at the same time as the women's, produced a similarly lopsided 6-1, 6-4 result, due to Kohlloeffel's extra dimension--his ability to finish at the net.
"I knew he was going to come in a lot," said Somdev Devvarman, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, who was a nine seed. "Usually I pass a lot better, but I didn't pass that terribly today. He volleys really well, and his approaches were better, which makes passing a little bit harder."
Kohlloeffel, a junior from Germany, had a some net-cord luck to break Devvarman for the first time in the opening set, but the second break assured him of taking the set.
"I was really nervous," Kohlloeffel admitted. "I don't know if Somdev was as nervous, but it's good to know you're a break up. It makes you feel better out there."
Devvarman's backhand was put to the test by the lefthanded top seed, and he acknowledged that it produced some "uncharacteristic" errors. With consistency and depth his major strengths, his hopes were riding on a very clean, error-free performance, but Kohlloeffel pressed the issue, taking every short ball and coming in. He also felt his game came up a notch because Devvarman's style favors long points.
"He's more of a guy that gives you a rhythm. Yesterday (against Erling Tveit) the points were much shorter, but today I could stand there and find my rhythm."
Kohlloeffel managed a 4-1 two-break lead in the second, but confessed that he started thinking about what he was about to do and lost a bit of focus. Devvarman got his only break in the match to make it 4-2, but Kohlloffel closed that only slightly ajar door. Fittingly, Kohlloffel finished the match by making a textbook volley from Devvarman's return of serve, and the Pac-10 could claim its second champion of the day.
The 24-year-old was asked about his future plans in tennis, now that he had capped last year's team title with this year's individual ones; last fall he won the ITA Indoor singles championship, becoming the first Bruin to do so.
"At the moment, I'm not planning on playing the pro tour," said Kohlloeffel, who is majoring in economics and considering graduate school when he earns his degree next year. "Time is not really working for me, I'm kind of old. At some point you have to start living your life and start doing what you want to do for the rest of your life. I'll go home and relax...I'm glad to get a break now."
In the doubles championships, two Big Ten schools will hang banners from their indoor courts' rafters, as the University of Illinois team of Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe captured the men's title, and Cristelle Grier and Alexis Prousis of Northwestern took the women's.
Anderson and Rowe have lost only one match all year, and with their No. 3 seed, were hardly surprising finalists. But down two match points in their first contest of the tournament, Anderson and Rowe survived by the skin of their teeth.
"We scraped through a few matches in the beginning of the tournament," Anderson said, "but today we came out firing and really played a good match."
With their big serves and crisp volleys, Anderson and Rowe gave the second seeded team of Scott Doerner and Andres Begemann of Pepperdine no time to breathe. Rowe, from Moline Illinois, and Anderson, of South Africa, were never broken in their 6-2, 6-4 victory, giving Illinois its third doubles championship of this decade. Brian Wilson and Rajeev Ram won the title in 2003 while Cary Franklin and Graydon Oliver were the champions in 2000.
"It's a great feeling," said Rowe, who, like Anderson is a sophomore. "I'm not sure how to react, but I'm happy to share this experience with Kevin, who's one of my best friends. The more matches we play, the better we get."
That was the theme of the unseeded Grier and Prousis of Northwestern, who defeated Lucia Sainz and Katharina Winterhalter from Fresno State, five seeds, 6-4, 6-1.
"In our first match, we could have lost it," Prousis, a Lake Forest Illinois junior said of their three-set comeback win over Arizona State. "But after that we've really had our heads on straight. We've gotten better from the first match on."
"This last three months, Prous and I have played unbelievably well together," said Grier of Epsom England. "This tournament we got some revenge on some people we've lost to and that's really satisfying."
Grier was no doubt referring to their shocking domination of the number one seeded Stanford team of Alice Barnes and Anne Yelsey in Sunday's semifinals by a 6-3, 6-2 score. Barnes and Yelsey had beaten Grier and Prousis in the first round of the ITA Indoor Championships last fall.
In Monday's final Grier and Prousis used their lobs and angles very effectively, and as they got better throughout the tournament, so too did they improve throughout the final, becoming the second doubles champions from Northwestern. Katrina Adams and Diane Donnelly won the title as Wildcats in 1987.
Grier is lone senior among the participants in Monday's finals and she knows how fortunate she is to complete her college tennis experience with a win.
"I'm lucky," she said. "I was hoping to do it in the singles, until I played a pretty awful match (a 6-1, 6-1 loss to second seed Kristi Miller), so I didn't want to end it on that. It's fantastic to end my career this way."