©Colette Lewis 2009--
College Station, TX--
On a hot and humid Memorial Day, two American teenagers with less than five months of college tennis experience stayed cool under pressure, leaving the George Mitchell Tennis Center on the Texas A & M campus with three NCAA championship trophies between them.
Duke's Mallory Cecil defeated University of Miami junior Laura Vallverdu 7-5, 6-4 to add a women's singles title to the team title she helped Duke win last Tuesday, while Devin Britton of Ole Miss posted a 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Ohio State senior Steven Moneke, becoming the youngest men's NCAA champion since the current format was adopted in 1977.
Britton, who turned 18 in March, was ranked 30th in the country coming into the individual tournament, but his serve and volley game proved too strong for his six opponents, three of whom were seniors seeded 9-16, including finalist Moneke.
"I definitely surprised myself," Britton said, chuckling. "I definitely didn't see this coming, but I took one match at a time, didn't have any mental lapses really, so that helped out a lot."
After dropping the first set to Moneke, who was returning well and holding serve with little difficulty, Britton regrouped.
"I took a deep breath and said let's try to figure out a way to make him work to hold serve," said the Jackson, Miss. native. "Eventually I started hitting some better forehands, started mixing up the slice a little bit--I don't think he liked that much--and I just got better and better as the match went on."
Moneke had opportunities in the second and third sets, but Britton either came up with a big serve, a deft drop shot or a groundstroke winner to deny them all.
"At 2-all in the second set, I had a couple of break chances," said Moneke. "I had a forehand return and missed it into the net, and when I walked over to my side to sit down, the coach (Mississippi's Billy Chadwick) said, 'this is a momentum change' and I heard it, and thought about it a little bit. It's tough to play against him, because you don't get a lot of rhythm. He misses a lot, but he also goes for his shots. He has great volleys, great anticipation at the net. He's streaky, but he makes a lot of balls too."
Moneke saw evidence of that in the third set, when Britton seized his break point chance with the German serving at 2-3, 30-40. Britton then held easily to take a 5-2 lead, with one big first serve after another, and virtually conceded Moneke's next service game.
"It was hot out there, and I was more tired than nervous," Britton said of the match's final two games. "When he was serving at 5-2, I didn't really want to get into a long game; if I didn't win the first couple of points, I really wasn't going after it. Coach was saying 'make him work for this game,' but I couldn't breathe, so I'm thinking let's not work too hard."
Serving for the championship, Britton was down 15-30, but as it had done all tournament, his serve rescued him. A big second serve got him even and two first serves ended the match, with Moneke more a bystander than a participant in the final three points.
Britton, only the third freshman to win the men's NCAA title since 1977, joining Stanford's John McEnroe and USC's Cecil Mamiit, boards a plane on Tuesday for Europe, where he'll play the French Open and Wimbledon junior tournaments.
"I'm not that worried about the surface," Britton said of the abrupt change to red clay. "I'm more worried about getting some rest before then. I've never played the French Open--it's more like an experience thing," Britton said, then quickly amended that statement. "It's not just experience--I want to win--and I haven't played on clay for a while so I want to see how it goes."
While Britton takes his game to the terre battue of Roland Garros, Cecil will be hitting the silver sands of Siesta Key, Florida for a well-deserved rest.
Monday's match was her ninth singles match in nine days, the first three coming in the team event, with Duke taking out California-Berkeley 4-0 in Tuesday evening's final. With the Blue Devils' first NCAA title in hand, Cecil said all week that she was playing with no pressure, and the freshman from Spartanburg, SC, didn't lose a set in capturing the title, Duke's first since Vanessa Webb's championship in 1998.
In the final, the unseeded Vallverdu stayed with Cecil point for point, breaking the No. 5 seed when she was serving for the opening set at 5-4. But Cecil converted on her second opportunity, breaking Vallverdu to take a 6-5 lead and avoiding a tiebreaker by holding the next game.
Cecil ran out to a 5-1 lead in the second set, but she was unable to serve it out at 5-2. Cecil had multiple match points with Vallverdu serving at 3-5, but Vallverdu, a junior from Venezuela, showed why she has a well-established reputation for fighting back. She made virtually no unforced errors in that long game, served well, and although there were signs that both women were battling fatigue, neither gave into it.
"I knew she just wasn't going to roll over," said Cecil, who defeated Miami's No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 players in the individual tournament. "I wasn't swinging really, I wasn't moving my feet. I definitely tightened up. The fact that I was actually so close, it just hit me. But in that last game, the sun was really in my eyes, so I was just trying to get that serve in, keep going for my shots, and not even think about the score in games, because we still could have had a lot more tennis to go."
Cecil, who turns 19 in July, did finish it, although it took her more than two hours to overcome Vallverdu, who wasn't happy with her own level of play.
"I didn't play my best. I know I didn't play to my potential," Vallverdu said. "I'm happy with the tournament, but I'm certainly not happy that I didn't get the win today. I was struggling a lot with playing the important points...with having my teeth in the match and just finishing the games that I had to finish."
Neither Britton nor Cecil are ruling out a return to college in the fall, and both are hoping for a wild card into the U.S. Open main draw in three months' time.
"Hopefully I can play some Futures this summer and get some results there, and I know in the fall, we're planning to play a bunch of pro stuff," Britton said. "I'd like to build up some points for when I come out of school next year. If it goes well next year, who knows after that? I still have a lot to work on, I still need to get bigger and stronger."
"We'll see how the summer goes," Cecil said. "I've set everything up as if I'm coming back next year. I've got all my classes, my roommate. I'm going to play, set a goal that I'd like to have by the end of this summer, and we'll go from there. I'm really enjoying college and college tennis, so why not look at another year?"
The University of Virginia earned its first NCAA doubles title to go with the two singles titles won by Cavalier Somdev Devvarman in 2007 and 2008 when unseeded Dominic Inglot and Michael Shabaz came back to defeat the No. 2 seeds Davey Sandgren and JP Smith of Tennessee 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-4.
"We’ve been here (in College Station) for 16 days now," said Shabaz, a sophomore from Virginia. "We discussed that if we were going to stay here, we might as well go for it. It heals things a little easier, because we were the top seed in the team tournament and that didn’t go through. It means a lot, it's kind of its own meaning, but we're really happy with it.”
Inglot, a senior from England, was pleased to close his college career with a win.
"I've had a great career, we've won two National Indoors, three ACC titles, and just to top it off with a national championship, finish without a loss, that really means a lot to me."
The women's doubles champions were new to college tennis, but California-Berkeley's Mari Andersson of Sweden and Jana Jurikova of Slovakia, both first-year players, now have a national title on their resume, although they are still one short of coach Amanda Augustus who won back-to-back championships with Amy Jensen in 1998 and 1999.
Although their 6-3, 6-4 win over Stanford's Hilary Barte and Lindsay Burdette may sound routine, it was a lengthy struggle between 5-8 seeded Pac-10 rivals that lasted nearly as long as the men's three-setter on the adjacent court.
"They didn't want to go home with two silver trophies," said Augustus, referring to the Bears loss to Duke in the team championships. "We've been working really hard all season with these guys on their doubles and to see it culminate in this is really great for our school, and I know everyone back at Cal is going to be so proud."
Monday, May 25, 2009