©Colette Lewis 2009--
College Station, TX--
When you're seeking your first NCAA team tennis championship, you look for omens everywhere and Duke coach Jamie Ashworth found one in the soundtrack playing as his team warmed up for the women's final against California-Berkeley Tuesday evening on the grandstand courts.
"It was a good sign when we were warming up, everyone was a little bit nervous, and a Jimmy Buffett song came on," Ashworth said. "I'm a huge Jimmy Buffett fan and they hate Jimmy Buffett music. I play it at practice sometimes. And right before we were starting the doubles, a Jimmy Buffett song came on and they all started laughing. It was unbelievable timing, and it relaxed us, took away our nervous energy."
Whatever it was that allowed the third-seed Duke team to play fearless tennis, there's no denying they did, blanking Cal-Berkeley 4-0 to secure their first NCAA tennis title in front of a sparse crowd at the George Mitchell Tennis Center.
The Bears suffered a serious blow when senior Claire Ilcinkas, playing on the No. 2 doubles court, went down late in the match. With her right calf taped, Ilcinkas finished the doubles contest, which clinched the point for Duke, but she was unable to walk unassisted and had to be scratched from the singles lineup.
Duke's Reka Zsilinszka and Ellah Nze took No. 3 doubles, beating Bojana Bobusic and Stephany Chang 8-4. Mallory Cecil and Jessi Robinson were 8-5 winners over Ilcinkas and Marina Cossou, leaving Cal the task of overcoming the loss of the doubles point, which they had done against Notre Dame in Monday's semifinals.
But the way the Duke women took charge, putting up 6-0 or 6-1 first sets on three separate courts, made that challenge insurmountable for the Bears.
"The start we got off to in singles was unbelievable," said Ashworth. "I was in awe watching them play, just looking down and seeing the scores, all the way down, it was unbelievable to see, a couple of 6-1s, a 6-0--we just gave them absolutely no breathing room, which was an amazing thing."
With her counterpunching style of play, Zsilinszka is rarely the first match finished, but Cal's Mari Andersson was completely baffled by the lack of pace, and committed a slew of errors attempting to force the action. It was over quickly, with Zsilinszka winning 6-1, 6-2 to give Duke a 2-0 lead.
At No. 6, Duke's Robinson had taken the first set 6-2 from Marion Ravelojaona, who was unexpectedly called on to compete when Ilcinkas couldn't take the court. Ravelojaona got a 4-1 lead in the second set, but dropped five straight games, earning Robinson the match and Duke its third point. Blue Devil Amanda Granson was also on the brink of a win over Bobusic at No. 4, having won the first set 6-0, and serving for the second at 5-4, but when Bobusic, playing one spot higher than usual due to the Ilcinkas injury, took the second set to a tiebreaker, the focus switched to No. 5. Duke senior Melissa Mang was up 6-1, 5-3 over Chang and only seconds after Robinson got point three, Mang earned the coveted fourth.
"It was such a special moment," said Mang. "I actually did not know, I don't really like to look at the scores or what's going on. I had a general idea that we were winning, but when it was down to the end of my match, I didn't know Jess was doing the same thing, and so when they all came running onto my court it was kind of a shock, but it was the best moment of my life."
"I was watching kind of awkwardly from the middle area," said Zsilinszka, who was named the tournament's most valuable player, "and I saw Jess with match point, and Melissa, and I said, oh my gosh, seniors clinching, no way, this is like perfect, it could not be more perfect. I wanted it for them so badly, because they've been unbelievable leaders for us, and the best people you could ask for. It's the most amazing experience."
For Cal coach Amanda Augustus it was a disappointing end to another stellar season.
"I'm really proud of my girls," Augustus said. "I think they gave everything that they had and they were fighting back on a lot of courts, and trying to keep us out there as long as possible, but you could tell Duke just wanted it today and my hat's off to them. They played great."
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009