©Colette Lewis 2009--
College Station, TX--
Ole Miss freshman Devin Britton and Ohio State senior Steven Moneke will meet Monday for the NCAA Men's Individual Championships, new territory for a competitor from those two schools.
Britton downed 9-16 seed Blake Strode of Arkansas 7-6 (9), 6-4, while Moneke, a 9-16 seed, defeated Sanam Singh of Virginia 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 Sunday, under threatening skies at the George Mitchell Tennis Center.
The first few games of the two men's semifinals were played with intermittent raindrops dotting the court, but by the third game, they had stopped falling.
Moneke had rolled past Singh in the first set and had two points to take a 5-2 lead in the second, but the Cavalier sophomore extricated himself from that predicament, sweeping the next four games and ending the set with a dazzling crosscourt angle forehand winner.
"All the momentum is with me after that set point," Singh said, "but I just played a really bad first game, made three or four unforced errors, and didn't really make him work for the first three games at all. I just gave the first two games to him, then starting playing again, but sometimes it's just too late."
Moneke, who has played at least one match and often two the past eight days, was happy to get the early third-set lead after Singh's change of tactics were successful in the second set.
"He's very dangerous to play, he can mix it up very good, drop shot, come into the net, slice a lot, it's very tough to play," said Moneke, a 22-year-old from Germany. "He changed his strategy and I had trouble getting used to that, but kept fighting. I knew if I got an early break in the third set, I had a good chance to close it out.
Moneke kept his lead throughout the third set, and was fully prepared to face the nerves of serving out the match when Singh took a 30-0 lead serving at 5-3. But four points later, Moneke had earned a spot in the final.
"He missed an easy forehand volley, and all of a sudden it was 30-all," Moneke said. "I hit a great forehand down the line passing shot, and on match point, I knew I was going to go for my return. I don't want to play too defensive, I just want to go for it, no regrets. He served to my forehand and I hit a pretty hard return. He served and volleyed, and missed the volley."
In Britton's quarterfinal win over Alex Clayton, it was his service return that proved the difference, but against Strode, the 18-year-old Mississippi resident's serve came through when he needed it.
"I definitely served very well today," Britton said. "He was serving pretty well also, but played a couple of games where he missed a bunch of first serves. I was lucky to get out of the first set when he was serving at 5-3."
Strode never got to set point in that game, but with Britton serving at 5-6, the senior from St. Louis had the freshman down 0-40. Britton saved the first two set points with a service winner and an ace, got another first serve in on the third set point and Strode's floating return resulted in an easy putaway. Two more first serves and Britton had gotten the set to a tiebreaker.
"Three set points and I didn't play bad points, it was just three good serves," Strode said. "When he serves that big, there's not really much I can do about that."
Britton had a 2-0 lead in the tiebreaker, but after that neither player led by more than one point. Strode saved three set points at 6-5, 7-6 and 8-7, then earned his fourth chance to end the set at 9-8. But Britton hit a service winner on that point and had a volley clip the net and fall in--his second net cord-aided winner of the tiebreaker--on the next. At 10-9, Britton finally closed it out with a forehand winner.
In the second set, Strode was broken at 3-4, giving Britton a chance to serve it out, but Strode made two winning passes at 30-30 to get back on serve. He couldn't buy a first serve in the next game however, and Britton eventually took advantage, converting his second match point when Strode came to the net and failed to finish the point.
"He probably could have made more first serves in that game and I was lucky to get a look at some second serves and take advantage of it," Britton said.
Although the NCAAs are new to Britton, who began school in Oxford in January, he is hardly unaccustomed to the big occasion. Last September he reached the U.S. Open Junior finals as a qualifier, a run that has parallels to this week's.
"It definitely helps a lot," said Britton. "It feels like a similar thing here, just kind of building the confidence round by round. I learned a lot from the U.S. Open and I'm trying to carry it over through here as well."
Sunday, May 24, 2009