©Colette Lewis 2007--
Top seed John Isner and second seed Somdev Devvarman survived tough three-set matches Sunday to earn their shot at an NCAA singles championship, while Audra Cohen and Lindsey Nelson will renew their rivalry in the women's final after straight set wins.
Isner came back to defeat sixth alternate Alex Slovic of Washington 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, finally closing the book on the Cinderella story of the senior from Serbia. Devvarman, a finalist in the 2006 NCAAs, returned to college tennis's biggest stage with a 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-3 victory over No. 4 seed Kevin Anderson of Illinois.
The smoke from the south Georgia wildfires swept into the Athens area Sunday morning, permeating the warm and humid spring air with the smell of autumn. The haze cleared in mid afternoon, as it did for local hero John Isner, who will play his final collegiate match on his home courts of Athens.
"In the first set, my legs weren't really underneath me and it showed," said Isner, who got down a break in the first, got it back, but uncharacteristically lost the tiebreak. "But I told myself I was so close, one win away from the national championship, and I'm not going to let fatigue get in the way."
Isner, who has played 16 matches including doubles since the tournament started on May 17th, has spent a lot of time in ice baths the past two weeks, and admitted that Slovic had the edge in freshness. But the one thing that the 6-foot-9 senior always has is his serve, and Slovic had no defense for that in the final two sets.
"It's coming so fast and the trajectory is always going away from me," said Slovic who estimated Isner's serve speed at 130 mph. And that's not just "Big Bertha," as former Georgia coach Dan Magill calls Isner's hard flat one. "First and second, there isn't that much difference. His second serve is maybe 120," Slovic said.
Slovic was bouncing and feinting like a boxer when receiving Isner's serve, but it didn't seem to disrupt Georgia's all-time leader in singles wins, who has totaled 56 aces in five matches. The crowd of several hundred, who may have rooted for the underdog in other circumstances, were vocal in their support, and once were admonished by the umpire for disagreeing with a call while the point was still undecided.
"There were a couple of moments when I thought it wasn't really fair," Slovic said. "Everybody started yelling during a point and I got distracted. It would have been better if the crowd was cheering for me, but that's not going to happen here."
Isner began to return Slovic's serve much more regularly in the final two sets, often just blocking it back, instead of taking a full swing. And when he broke early in the third set, the anxious Bulldog fans began to breathe a little easier. "One more hammer, Johnny" a particularly vocal fan yelled out when Isner was serving, and Isner obliged, giving Slovic no hope of adding yet another upset to his string of them the past week.
Isner's opponent in Monday evening's final will be a familiar one, as he and Devvarman have met three times this season alone. Isner holds a 2-1 lead, but Devvarman won the most recent contest, earning Virginia its only point in their 4-1 semifinal loss to Georgia in the team competition.
The junior from India outlasted No. 4 seed Kevin Anderson of Illinois 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-3 in a three-hour match containing many break opportunities but precious few actual breaks.
"It was that close a match," said Devvarman. "I saved a lot of break points in the first set, a lot. Both of us came up with some big shots. Down break point on his serve, he served unbelievable."
After Devvarman got his first break of the match in the third game of the final set, hitting a sublime backhand cross court pass at 30-40, Anderson, who has played more matches than Isner in the past two weeks, called for a trainer and received a medical attention for a tight hamstring.
"I felt like he was getting a little bit tired in the third set," said Devvarman, "but I think I was getting tired at that point as well, but I don't know if he knew that. When he took the three minute break it just gave me time to sit down and recoup and think about how I'm going to hold my next serve."
Anderson, a junior from South Africa, has an excellent one-two punch with his serve and forehand, and although he said he felt in control of the match for most of the first two sets, there were some regrets about how he played in the third.
"I didn't do such a great job of playing every point with full intensity," Anderson said. "A lot of balls come back that don't usually come back, and so you've just got to stay focused and keep going right until the point ends."
The women's semifinals produced the day's only upset, when No. 4 Lindsey Nelson of USC defeated No. 2 Megan Falcon of LSU 7-6(2), 6-2, but with Nelson a 2006 NCAA finalist, it's not surprising that she would come through. Falcon, playing in her first NCAA competition, lost only two matches all year, but the sophomore from California couldn't find an answer when Nelson got her two-handed strokes grooved.
Serving at 2-2 in the second set, Nelson was down 0-40, but Falcon couldn't convert, or rather Nelson wouldn't let her.
"She hit an ace and two winners," Falcon recounted. "What could I do? I wish it had been a little different, that I'd had a short ball, that would have been great, but there were like six straight points there where she made no mistakes. I'm not a machine--I tried my best."
"The first set was really tough," said Nelson, a rail-thin six-footer from Villa Park, California. "I was so nervous, my stomach was acting up. The second set, I just wanted her to play well, I wanted to enjoy the ball coming back so much, that it was just a mental thing. I just stepped it up."
Nelson admitted that nerves got in the way of her ball-striking in last year's 6-4, 6-1 loss to Cal's Susie Babos in the finals, but she is expecting to benefit from that experience in Monday night's final against top seed Audra Cohen.
"I'll just enjoy it," she said. "Take really deep breaths."
The final will be something of a grudge match, as Nelson took out the top-seeded Cohen in the 2006 NCAA round of 16, and this year in the team competition, Cohen defeated Nelson to clinch Miami's 4-3 win over USC, a match Nelson described as a "heartbreaker."
Cohen reached the final by taking out the only remaining champion in the tournament, Zuzana Zemenova of Baylor, 6-2, 6-2. Zemenova, who defeated Cohen in Athens in 2005, when both were freshmen, assessed the difference in Cohen's game.
"I think she improved her serve," said the Slovakian. "She's serving better now; it's very hard to break her, and she has a pretty good forehand too."
"My serve has developed into one of my biggest weapons," Cohen said. "Once I had back surgery I was able to come back and put a lot of emphasis on not just getting my serve back to where it was, but getting it even better."
Cohen has lost only six games in the two matches she's played since staging her dramatic comeback against Celia Durkin, when she was down a set, 4-0 and 0-40. Thoughts of that match haven't gone away, even if it was Cohen who had the big advantage in the second set of Sunday's semifinal.
"I was thinking to myself, 'Oh my god, you better keep on her, you better keep on her,'" Cohen said. "When I lost that game to go to 4-2, I said to myself 'you've got to step it up, hold this game and get up 5-2.'"
The doubles champions will be crowned on Monday afternoon, and the Illinois team of Anderson and Ryan Rowe have an opportunity to defend their 2006 title after a 7-5, 7-5 victory over Mariusz Adamski and Todd Paul of Wake Forest in a battle of No. 5 seeds. Another No. 5 seeded team, Marco Born and Andreas Siljestrom of Middle Tennessee State, pulled off their second straight upset, defeating No. 2 seeds Devvarman and Treat Huey of Virginia 6-3, 7-6 (5).
The women's doubles final, like the men's singles, will feature the top two seeded teams--No. 1 William and Mary and No. 2 University of North Carolina. William and Mary's Megan Moulton-Levy and Katarina Zoricic downed unseeded Ani Mijacika and Federica van Adrichem of Clemson 6-3, 7-5 in one Sunday semifinal. UNC's Sara Anundsen and Jenna Long prevailed over No. 4 seeded Ana Cetnik and Anna Sydorska of TCU 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.
For complete results, including the starting times for Monday's championship matches,
Sunday, May 27, 2007