©Colette Lewis 2007--
The Georgia Bulldog fans leaving the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on another improbably perfect soft spring evening may have gone home disappointed in the outcome, but if they were fans of tennis, they knew they had witnessed a special NCAA final. No. 2 seed Somdev Devvarman of Virginia defeated Georgia's John Isner, the top seed, 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (2), a feat he accomplished without once breaking the 6-foot-10-inch right-hander's serve.
"I just realized that I won a match and did not break serve one single time," said the junior from Chennai, India. "I don't think I've done that ever. His is a great, great serve, and it's going to take him a long way in his pro career."
Devvarman cited his serve as the biggest improvement in his game since his appearance in the NCAA final in 2006, and throughout the first set he was as successful as Isner at holding. Break opportunities were nonexistent, a tiebreak inevitable.
Devvarman earned a 5-4 lead in the first tiebreak by retrieving a forehand putaway and dipping it past a surprised Isner at the net, and reached set points when Isner sent a backhand long on the next point. But he failed to extinguish the hopes of Isner and his fans. A crosscourt backhand winner and a deft forehand drop volley by Isner brought it to 6-6, and he urged the hundreds of Bulldog fans to ramp up the volume when Devvarman just missed a down-the-line forehand, giving Isner his only set point. But Isner's backhand error and a forehand volley winner by Devvarman gave him a third try, and this time he guessed right on an Isner second serve and hit a winner to take the lead.
The second set brought the novelty of a break of serve, when at 3-3 Isner capitalized on his sole break point by pulling Devvarman off the court and guiding a forehand into the open court. The crowd held its collective breath while the ball made its way through the air, and let out a sigh of relief when the line umpire on the far end of the court made the safe sign, giving Isner the break. He held on, benefiting from two apparently wide serves called aces when serving at 5-4, to send the national championship to a deciding set.
It was as tight as the first two, as both players continued to protect their serves. Although the "break, break, break" chants would rise periodically from the wooden bleachers behind the Mikael Pernfors Center Court, they had no impact on Devvarman, who kept matching Isner hold for hold.
In the final tiebreak, Devvarman gave the crowd momentary hope when he made a backhand error serving for the first point, but Isner failed to get a first serve in on the next two points, and Devvarman took advantage, hitting two winners to deflate the hopes of the Georgia faithful.
"I served really well in the breakers, especially in the second one," said Devvarman. "He was serving well but I had a few good returns and made the most of my opportunities."
Although Isner managed one more ace to narrow Devvarman's lead to 5-2, it was Devvarman who closed the match with a flourish, hitting an ace of his own, then leaping high in the air and twirling around, racquet in hand and fist pumped.
"Right after I hit the ace I was pretty relieved," said Devvarman, 22. "I didn't want John serving at 3-6, because I knew the kind of clutch player that he is, you have to expect him to do something great because he does it repeatedly. It was a great, great feeling."
Although Isner was disappointed by the loss, he gently reminded Devvarman during the trophy presentation remarks who had won the team championship.
"I enjoyed every bit of the year going 32-0 and winning a national championship," Isner said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Devvarman said he expects to return for his senior year at Virginia, citing his degree and a national team championship as goals for the 2007-08 season, while the 22-year-old Isner will begin his pro career while training in Florida.
The women's champion, Audra Cohen, who defeated Lindsey Nelson of USC 7-5, 6-2, announced that she would leave the University of Miami after her junior year to try her hand at the pro tour.
"It's definitely a tough decision," said Cohen, 21. "I have a team of my best friends to leave behind, the college atmosphere that I'm walking away from. But I feel like it's my time. I've won so many college tournaments and been No. 1 in the country for a while, and it's my time to go out and play."
"I think she's ready and that she's making the right decision," said her coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews. "She's definitely going to be missed, but she's making the right decision for herself."
Since her dramatic comeback in the round of 16 against Celia Durkin, where she trailed 6-3 4-0 0-40, Cohen has been playing high-level tennis. But in the final, she started slowly and trailed 5-3 in the first set before reeling off the next nine games of the match.
"In the beginning I was rushing myself," said Cohen, of Plantation, Fla. "I was a little bit nervous; it was a big moment, big crowd; it took me a little while to get comfortable on the court and to start dictating the pace of the play."
Nelson, of Villa Park, Calif., hits two-handed from both sides, and flat and early are the watchwords of her style. But the thin six-footer couldn't keep the errors out of her game, and she noted that as the major difference between her play and Cohen's.
"She didn't miss--at all," said Nelson, who lost in the NCAA final for the second straight year. "And I missed a lot of balls. I made a lot of winners, but I missed way too many. Her slice was very effective today, her high balls were deep and heavy and it was difficult."
At 5-0, Nelson held and broke, but although she kept fighting, Nelson admitted it was "too late." As for Cohen, even the knowledge that it was her last collegiate match didn't give her any incentive to prolong it. "The quicker the better," she laughed afterwards. "And frankly, at the end, when it was 5-0 and then it was 5-2, it wasn't going quick enough."
As Cohen leaves college tennis with three major titles--the ITA Indoor, the ITA All-American and the NCAA individual--she looks back on the Hurricanes' 2006 NCAA season as one of the highlights of her college career.
"Getting the team to the finals was great. We were kind of underrated, but we just had heart; we didn't have all of the talent that the other teams had, we just had the fight, and that's something that helped me along the way. It helped me today and it will help me in the future as well."
Monday, May 28, 2007