©Colette Lewis 2008--
The NCAA singles finals may have been short on drama, but they were long on history, as Virginia's Somdev Devvarman and Georgia Tech's Amanda McDowell earned championships with straight set victories Monday at the Michael Case Tennis Center on the campus of the University of Tulsa.
With her 6-2, 6-3 win over 2005 NCAA champion Zuzana Zemenova of Baylor, McDowell became the first Georgia Tech player to capture an NCAA title, but the sophomore from Atlanta was oh-so-close to losing in the first round against Vanderbilt's Amanda Taylor.
"When I was down those (four) match points, I was thinking to myself, if I don't lose this point, I'm not out of the tournament," McDowell said. "I wasn't really thinking about anything else except surviving that match. She put a lot of pressure on me, and I had to step up my game, and in the end, I think that helped me a lot to win the championship."
By the time she had reached the final, McDowell's game had risen several levels, and Zemenova was at a loss for ways to counter McDowell's depth and consistency.
"She played really good today," said Zemenova, a senior from Slovakia. "I was thinking about it, and I can't find anything that I could do. The most important times, she just hit unbelievable shots. I have to give her credit, she just played amazing tennis today."
Zemenova didn't help her cause by serving poorly--she was broken the first seven times she served--and often McDowell stepped into a second serve and took control of the point from there.
"It was one of the best I've ever played," McDowell admitted. "Mainly I just stepped up at the right time."
"She plays an aggressive style, but high percentage," said her coach, Bryan Shelton, who sat on the court throughout the match. "I liken her to like an Andre Agassi, who can take your legs within one set. I think that's what she was able to do in the last three or four matches, she's taken and broken other girls' wills after that first set by working them so hard."
McDowell, the No. 7 seed, who coincidentally wears that number on her back, also displayed some mental strength in the second set. Serving at 4-2, she and Zemenova engaged in several lengthy rallies in the midafternoon heat and humidity. McDowell finally earned a game point, and had an easy put away at the net. She missed the swinging volley, badly, but there was no anguish, and no doubts crept into her game. Instead she painted lines with forehand winners on the next two points, securing a 5-2 lead.
"I thought from the beginning if I was playing good tennis and my footwork was where it needed to be that I could do it," McDowell said. "I definitely believed in myself from the beginning; I never really doubted myself."
McDowell lost eight matches this year, but Devvarman, who became the fourth back-to-back NCAA champion in the past fifty years, and the first since Georgia's Matias Boeker in '01-02, had lost only one. Since dropping a three-setter to Georgia's Travis Helgeson in the semifinals of the All-American tournament here in Tulsa, the 23-year-old from Chennai, India had not tasted defeat.
Throughout the week, and in spite of the disappointment of losing the team championship when Virginia fell to Georgia 4-3 in the semifinals, Devvarman kept his focus, and in Monday's late afternoon final defeated JP Smith of Tennessee 6-3, 6-2.
"This is the way pretty much anyone would like to end their college career," said Devvarman, who needed only an hour to dismiss Smith. "But before I take any credit, I have to give credit to the people behind the scenes who work with me all the time--my coaches, my parents, my professors, my best friends who always support me--it just goes on and on...I'm really grateful for what they've given me the last four years."
Virginia head coach Brian Boland was quick to return the compliments.
"He's a special guy. He has incredible perspective, and he's mature beyond his years...he has a certain calmness to him and a level of consistency that allows him to continue to move forward each match and play at a high level. Nobody prepares better than Somdev. He has great intelligence for how to play the game....a great ability to do the things he does best over and over....his ability to anticipate off the ground is incredible and that goes with some of the fastest wheels on the planet."
Against Smith, the freshman from Australia, Devvarman took control and never relinquished it. With Smith serving at 3-4 30-30 in the first set, Devvarman hit a tremendous return to reach break point, and when Smith double faulted, had the break he needed to finish it.
"He didn't let me into the match very often," said Smith. "I really couldn't come forward as much as I would like to. I only made like thirty percent of first serves. I couldn't get my teeth into the match, that's the main thing and once he got on top of me it was hard to come back."
Serving the first game of the second set, Smith battled through five deuces, and saved three break points, but he lost it, and his next service game too, giving Devvarman a 4-0 lead.
"For JP to find a way to beat me, he had to serve unbelievable and play some really good return games," said Devvarman, who outlasted one of college tennis's best-ever servers, Georgia's John Isner, in last year's final. "I focused really hard on my serve, JP played a loose game in the first set, and I just rolled with the momentum in the second. Before I knew it, I was up two breaks, serving for the match."
Last year in Athens, it was a third set tiebreaker that decided the final, and Devvarman managed the win despite being surrounded by rabid Bulldog fans. This year, on a neutral court, he proved himself as the best college player again, but with his college career closing, there was a different perspective.
"As much fun as that was, this was just as much fun for me, because I knew this was going to be my last college tennis match ever. I got a few emotions on the court, I was pretty emotional last night before I went to bed. Both championships were special, but this one, maybe a little bit more, because I know it's my last match with my coaches."
As quick as the singles matches were, the doubles finals were the opposite. The No. 2 seeded team of Robert Farah and Kaes Van't Hof of Southern Cal won their fourth tiebreaker in the past two days, and defeated the No. 4 seeded team of Jonas Berg and Erling Tveit of Ole Miss 7-6(10), 7-6(5).
After surviving the unseeded Ole Miss team of Bram ten Berge and Matthias Wellermann 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-6(10) in Sunday's semifinals, Farah and Van't Hof were ready for another tense battle.
"I was a lot more calm in breakers today," said Van't Hof, a senior, whose father Robert won the NCAA singles title in 1980. "If those were our first breakers of the tournament today, then I would have been a little tighter than I was after playing three gut-wrenching, almost heart-breaking breakers yesterday."
There were no breaks in the opening set, which took an hour to complete, with Van't Hof and Farah fighting off two set points before finally converting on their sixth set point, when Farah kicked in a first serve and Van't Hof put away the return.
The Trojans found themselves down a break in a hurry in the second, with Farah dropping serve at love, but they pulled even in the fourth game, when Tveit served poorly for one of the only times in the match. In the second set tiebreaker, the Rebels had a set point at 6-5, but Van't Hof slammed an ace, then gave his team a match point with another excellent first serve. Tveit's second serve was adequate, but the return was better and the Ole Miss reply was wide, giving USC the national title.
The UCLA Bruins took home their second national championship of the fortnight, with No. 1 seeds Riza Zalameda and Tracy Lin defeating No. 2 seeds Melanie Gloria and Tinesta Rowe of Fresno State 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
"They were a good team," said Lin. "Rowe is extremely aggressive at the net. In the third set, we were fortunate enough to get an early break and stayed on top of them."
After winning the team championship, Zalameda admitted that there weredifferent emotions at work in the individual event.
"It's a great feeling just to win a title like this, but I feel like last week was a little more intense. The team was incredible with winning not just for us, but also for other people."
For additional coverage of the NCAA championships, see collegeandjuniortennis.com.
Monday, May 26, 2008