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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tennessee Claims Blue Gray with 4-2 Victory over Alabama

©Colette Lewis 2009--
Montgomery, AL--

I've been hearing about the Blue Gray Tennis Classic since I started covering college tennis back in 2005, but today was my first opportunity to see the tradition and excitement of the event, in its 60th year.

The current format brings 16 men's teams to Montgomery, where they are guaranteed three matches during the four day event, with the finalists getting four. With outstanding weather and two "local" teams--Alabama and Auburn--in Saturday's semifinals, tournament chairman Paul Winn told me that the crowds were packed into the bleachers at Lagoon Park Tennis Center, a municipal facility.

Attendance was impressive this afternoon, with Alabama in the final against Tennessee, who had beaten Auburn 4-2 on Saturday. Most were in Crimson Tide sportswear, but here and there some block "T"s and neon orange could be spotted in the non-conference SEC matchup.

The doubles point, so critical to setting the tone for the match, was close as expected. Due to Davey Sandgren's jammed finger, an injury sustained when he was playing catch with a tennis ball Sunday morning, the Volunteers' doubles teams were re-configured, with Boris Conkic and Matteo Fago playing No. 1, J.P. Smith and Matt Brewer playing No. 2 and Christian Hansen and Bryan Swartz at No. 3. Alabama picked up the first doubles win when Ricky Doverspike and Andrew Felsenthal beat Hansen and Swartz 8-4, and it looked as if it would come down to No. 1 doubles, when Brewer and Smith went up a break at No. 2. Smith was broken however, to briefly get the Tide's Billy Mertz and Saketh Myneni back on serve, but Myneni couldn't hold in the next game, and Tennessee recorded an 8-6 win. During that exchange of breaks at No. 2, Alabama's No. 1 team of Dan Buikema and Mathieu Thibaudeau lost a service game for the first and only time at 4-4, and Tennessee took the 8-6 win and the doubles point.

Although Alabama head coach Billy Pate said afterward he didn't feel the doubles point was a "must-have," he went on to say how difficult it was to win four of six singles matches against a good team. And what he said he really needed was a first set at one of the top three singles positions, once Buikema at No. 4 and Michael Jung at No. 6 had gotten off to impressive starts against Brewer and Christopher Williams.

But Fago had taken a quick 6-2 first set at No. 3 singles over Alabama's Michael Thompson, Thibaudeau had dropped the first set to Conkic at No. 2, and Smith won the opening set from Myneni at No. 1. The crowd watching the first bank of courts didn't have much to cheer about, and even when Alabama took a 2-1 lead with wins at Nos. 4 & 6, there wasn't much optimism, especially when Mertz fell behind a set and 4-1 against Christian Hansen at No. 5.

Conkic brought Tennessee even with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Thibaudeau, and Smith, Fago and Hansen were all in match games. After a late break in the second set, Smith gave the Vols a 3-2 lead with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Myneni. Fago was serving at 6-5 at No. 3, but Hansen beat him to the fourth point, taking a 6-4, 6-4 decision over Mertz.

After the match, an impressive percentage of the fans stayed for the trophy presentations. In addition to the team champion trophies, there were awards for MVP (Smith, who went 4-0 over the weekend in singles) and sportsmanship (Myneni) and for the winning coach, a bright blue blazer.

Tennessee Sam Winterbotham admitted that he wasn't much of a jacket kind of guy, but was happy to have earned the honor. He was also impressed by Winn's ability to gauge his size, as he was unable to help the chairman out when he was asked earlier in the day what his measurements were.

"He guessed pretty good," Winterbotham said. "I'll wear it for special occasions. I've got three young children, and they'll love to see Dad in the blue blazer."

Another of the Blue Gray's traditions is the hosting families, who take in several players from each team for the duration of the tournament. In the team photograph after the final match, four families who shared their homes with Tennessee players were included, and from all accounts, these are bonds made that will last for many, many years.

"The families just make you feel so good," said Winterbotham. "The experience, the atmosphere, the sense of community--that's really what makes this tournament special."

For the complete results of the tournament, see the tournament's website, bluegraytennis.com.

For the University of Tennessee's account of the win, see utsports.com.

I'll have more about the Blue Gray Classic later this month for the Tennis Recruiting Network.


Austin said...

Bama's #1 dubs team have been struggling this year.

Billy Mertz is now playing #5 after playing #1 two years ago, but had to redshirt because of shoulder surgery I believe. If he is able to get back into the rhythm he had before his injury and move back up the lineup they could be a threat come May.