©Colette Lewis 2007--
Georgia senior Matic Omerzel is familiar with the two sides of team competition in tennis. In last year’s NCAA finals in Palo Alto, he lost to Andre Begemann of Pepperdine, giving the Waves their first NCAA title.
On a warm and breezy Tuesday afternoon in Athens, Omerzel delivered the Bulldogs’ fifth NCAA men’s tennis championship, earning the final point in top-seeded Georgia’s 4-0 win over the University of Illinois with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory over Ruben Gonzales.
“The whole summer that match was haunting me,” admitted Omerzel, who had gotten his team to the finals last year with a clinching win over Baylor in the semis. “I was thinking about it a lot, I couldn’t help it. But the longer we went into the season, the less I thought about it.”
With shouts of “Omi” cascading down on him from many of the Bulldog fans surrounding court 4, the Slovenian right-hander was listening more for the roar from the main three courts, where fellow senior and tri-captain John Isner was heading to a tiebreak in the second set of his match with Kevin Anderson at No. 1.
“I looked up at the scoreboard at the 4-1 changeover and saw John going into the tiebreaker and I was really confident that he was going to win that tiebreaker,” said Omerzel, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “I kind of listened to the crowd while I was playing my game, and when everyone went crazy, I looked up at the assistant coach, and he said ‘that’s it, it’s on you.’ I got goosebumps, I got that chill in my body. It was so loud, all eyes were on me, and I just enjoyed it, I loved it.”
Georgia had taken a 1-0 lead by outlasting a very determined Illini squad in doubles play. At one stage the scoreboard read 5-5, 5-5 and 6-6 on the three courts, but Georgia freshmen Jamie Hunt and Nate Schnugg broke GD Jones and Marc Spicijaric at 7-8 to secure the match at No. 3, and Travis Helgeson and Omerzel at No. 2 took the clinching point by an 8-6 score over Brandon Davis and Gonzales.
As the crowd, which eventually numbered over 3200, continued to filter in from their tailgate parties, packing the bleachers with their red and black Dawg-wear, the singles competition began. And it couldn’t have begun more promisingly for Georgia, as Isner buzzed through a 6-1 first set against Anderson.
“He gave me that first set,” said Isner. “Kevin’s a great player, but he just started out real slow, really just kind of gave it to me.”
The other five matches were much closer, and there were three tiebreaks in first sets, but when Georgia’s Nate Schnugg at No. 5 defeated Jones 6-4, 6-1, the crowd began to sense that a championship was imminent. And when it happened, it happened quickly. Isner, who had fought off three set points at 4-5 in the second to get to the tiebreak, played what he called “one of the best tiebreakers I’ve ever played,” and moments later, Omerzel delivered. It took a moment for the players on the other courts to make their way to the “pit” as the bottom three courts at The Dan Magill Tennis Complex are called, but the pandemonium wasn’t delayed—the thousands of delirious fans saw to that.
Asked if the disappointment of last year’s loss to Pepperdine made this one sweeter, Georgia’s Manny Diaz cut to the chase.
“Absolutely. I won’t lie anymore,” he laughed. “We showed up back here in the fall, and I could tell these guys were still hurting from it. It did take us a very long time to put it behind us. We had to find something to hold on to, and at the same time look in front of us, instead of the rearview mirror.”
And now Diaz has the luxury of looking at another championship trophy, and his undefeated team’s place in college tennis history.
“The question wasn’t really relevant until this afternoon,” Diaz said when asked if this was one of the best teams in college tennis since team championships were instituted in 1977. “Do you know how hard it is to win an NCAA championship? We’ve had some really great teams that didn’t. But now, since you asked that question, I think it’s worth asking and we deserve to be in the debate.”
Tuesday, May 22, 2007