Devvarman and Smith Reach Men's Final; McDowell and Zemenova Will Decide Women's Champion Monday at NCAAs
©Colette Lewis 2008--
Monday's NCAA singles finals will pit newcomers against experienced champions in both the men's and women's divisions, with the heat and humidity of the Oklahoma summer providing a challenging backdrop. Virginia's Somdev Devvarman and Baylor's Zuzana Zemenova will be attempting to win their second championships, with Tennessee freshman JP Smith and Georgia Tech sophomore Amanda McDowell providing the opposition at the Michael Case Tennis Center.
Devvarman is the most familiar face, as the just-graduated senior has now reached the NCAA finals for a record three straight times (records date to 1977, when the current format was introduced). In his 6-4, 7-6(3) semifinal victory over Stanford's Alex Clayton, Devvarman trailed 3-1 in the first set after he was broken at love, but won the next four games to take a 5-4 lead. Serving for the set, Devvarman was down 30-40, but some clutch serving, including a second serve winner, earned him the first set.
Clayton was broken in the opening game of the second set, but did not appear discouraged, and his forehand, which he over-hit several times on key points in the first set, began to find the court more often. He broke Devvarman in the fourth game, saved two break points with aces serving at 5-5, and even took a 3-1 lead in the tiebreaker. But Devvarman's serve, one of the most underrated aspects of his game, reached top form at the late stages of the tiebreaker, when he hit three aces on his last three serves to finish it.
"To be honest, he had a lot of chances in that match," Devvarman said. "He came out really well and I've got to give him a lot of credit for a great match. At the same time, I thought I dug really deep, fought really hard, and that's the main reason i came out on top. Of course, I served really well."
As the No. 1 ranked player in college tennis, Devvarman is hardly an unexpected finalist, but few saw the unseeded Smith, who defeated Pepperdine's Andre Begemann, a 9-16 seed, 6-2, 6-4, making such a splash, including Smith himself.
"If you would have told before the start of the week that I'd be in the final, I would've have thought, don't think I would have," said the 6-foot-2 Australian. "I've got one more match to go; it's going to be a tough match...he won it last year and was in the final the year before, so he knows the situation and the expectation that comes with the final. I'm looking forward to it. I'm playing my best tennis right now, which is good, and hopefully I can get one more done."
Against Begemann, Smith did not drop serve throughout the match, and when he did face break points, his big lefty serve proved too much for the senior from Germany. The key point in the second set saw Smith down 30-40 serving at 3-4, with Begemann just that point away from serving to even the match.
"I played a great point there," said Smith. "I took it to him, served and volleyed on a second serve, which was a pretty bold move, considering his really good returns. I was lucky enough to hit a really good volley and put the match away, I guess. I ended up breaking in the next game, and that was a momentum swing."
The women's semifinal between No. 7 seed McDowell and Auburn's Fani Chifchieva, a 9-16 seed, didn't feature any such swings, as McDowell took early leads in both sets. McDowell, who is the first Georgia Tech player to reach the national finals, did drop her serve at 3-1 in second set, allowing the sophomore from Bulgaria to get back on serve. But the 5-foot-5 righthander from Atlanta immediately broke back and finished it with her sixth break of Chifchieva, whom she had also beaten in straight sets in a January dual match.
"Going in I knew she really liked her backhand, it was her better side...I knew her backhand was such a strong weapon that I was going to have to be careful when I went to that side,"said McDowell, who closed out Chifchieva with two winners from deep behind the baseline. "I served really, really well today....my first percentage was pretty high."
Although McDowell is a sophomore, this is her first appearance in the individual tournament, although she is hardly a stranger to big match occasions, as a member of the 2007 national championship team. Asked if she felt Zemenova, the 2005 NCAA champion had an advantage, McDowell didn't concede it.
"I think we've both had opportunities to play in matches where there's a lot riding on it. I've had a lot of experience, playing in the finals with my team....I don't really feel that I'm at a disadvantage going into tomorrow."
The unseeded Zemenova's semifinal win over top seed Aurelija Miseviciute of Arkansas could hardly be classified as huge upset given the Baylor senior's pedigree. Having lost to the eventual champion in both 2006 and 2007, Zemenova is a tough out, and Misevicuite learned that when Zemenova hit a forehand winner and a backhand winner down two set points at 4-5 in the opening set of her 7-6(2), 6-2 victory.
"In the first set, when I was up 4-2, I felt like I was slowly pushing the ball," said Zemenova, who also threw in some untimely double faults late in first set. "My serve the last couple of days has been a little bit off. I just can't find the feeling."
Up 5-1 in the second set, Zemenova couldn't convert on her two opportunities to serve it out, but Miseviciute also had difficulty holding.
"When it was 5-4 and I was up 40-0, she hit another good shot to make it 40-30," Zemenova said. "The last point I hit really short, and I thought she was going to hit a winner, but she just missed it. That was a good feeling."
Both Devvarman and Zemenova commented that they now know for certain that on Monday they will play their final college match, and they are determined to enjoy it, before heading out to the professional ranks.
The doubles semifinals were highlighted by an epic battle between the unseeded Ole Miss pair of Bram ten Berge and Mattias Wellermann and No. 2 seeds Robert Farah and Kaes Van't Hof of Southern Cal. For Farah and Van't Hof, down 5-3, 30-0 with the 6-foot-7 Wellermann serving in the third set, it was difficult to envision the Trojans reaching the match's third tiebreaker, but they did, and saved one match point in their 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-6(10) victory.
"It was an amazing match to play," said Farah. "I'm glad I was a part of it....that breaker, a lot of emotions, but thank god we could stay calm and close that match."
It took six match points, which would try any team's patience, but the serves of the Ole Miss team bailed them out often.
"We had to focus on doing the simplest things off their serves, because it makes you feel like an amateur out there," said Van't Hof. "It makes you feel like you're just starting the game. There's a lot of nerve-racking shots, especially knowing how big the guys are serving on the other side."
Van't Hof came up with a clutch serve of his own, down match point at 8-9 in the tiebreaker, with a second serve winner. "It was an absolute miracle we pulled it out," Van't Hof said.
Up next for the Southern Cal pair is No. 4 seed Erling Tveit and Jonas Berg, also of Ole Miss, who ended the run of the unseeded team of Austin Krajicek and Conor Pollock of Texas A&M 6-4, 6-4.
"I'm not looking forward to playing Ole Miss again," Van't Hof joked. "That was their number two team...."Imagine their number one," Farah interjected.
The women's doubles final will feature the top two teams, with UCLA's Riza Zalameda and Tracy Lin taking on the No. 2 seeds Melanie Gloria and Tinesta Rowe of Fresno State.
Gloria and Rowe ended the run of the No. 3 seeded Oklahomans Brook Buck and Kelcy Tefft of Notre Dame, 6-1, 7-5, while Zalameda and Lin cruised past Renata Kucerkova and Anastasia Petukhova of Fresno State 6-2, 6-1.
For more coverage of the final weekend of the NCAA tournament, visit Tulsa World and collegeandjuniortennis.com.