©Colette Lewis 2010--
Stanford's Bradley Klahn and Georgia's Chelsey Gullickson both experienced midseason slumps. But now that the sophomores have put their names on the list of NCAA singles champions, their second collegiate seasons ended with resounding success.
Klahn defeated Austen Childs of Louisville 6-1, 6-2, while Gullickson battled to a 6-3, 7-6(7) decision over Cal-Berkeley's Jana Jurikova on a damp and humid afternoon at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex at the University of Georgia.
Early morning drizzle gave way to a late morning shower, but despite frequent rumbles of thunder and an occasional fat drop of rain, there was a four-hour window of dry weather that allowed the uninterrupted completion of all four finals.
Klahn, a 9 seed, had taken control of his match with the unseeded Childs early, breaking him in the fourth game and again in the sixth. Using his forehand to keep Childs on the defensive, Klahn didn't let the occasion disrupt his focus, thanks to some advice from his coach John Whitlinger, a Stanford NCAA singles champion in 1974.
"About an hour and a half before the match, I pulled him aside and said, I've been through this," Whitlinger said. "The biggest thing is that you've got to stay in the moment. When I played it, Chico Hagey killed me in the first set and I didn't let it bother me. We played three out of five then and I won the next three sets. Don't think about what's in the past, or what's potentially in the future, just stay in the moment and play each point."
After Klahn broke Childs in a nine-deuce game to open the second set, the temptation to start thinking about joining the 13 other NCAA singles champions from Stanford must have been great. But Klahn didn't succumb.
"Having coach talk to me before calmed my nerves a bit," said Klahn. "I had a million thoughts racing through my head when we were coming to the site today. I thought I did a good job of not getting caught up in what was at stake, taking it point by point. That's the only way to go. If you start thinking about what if, you make it a bigger deal than it is."
Back in February, Klahn had lost three of four matches, but said the Cardinal's goal is always to peak in May. After a couple of close three-setters in the second and fourth rounds, the Poway, California native saw it all come together in the final two matches, beating top seed Henrique Cunha of Duke Sunday and Childs in the final, losing only seven games total.
"I started playing a little bit better each round and by the semis and finals, I really thought I found my game," Klahn said.
"I couldn't keep it away from his forehand, and he was just cracking winners from everywhere," said Childs, a junior from New Zealand. "I was trying to get to his backhand and then go to his forehand, but his forehand was big today."
"In the second set I tried to slow it down, make a few more balls, and he was missing a few more forehands than usual," Childs said. "I had a few chances, I could've gotten a few more games if I had gotten that last point, but credit to him, he just came up with some big shots."
With Stanford hosting the NCAA tournament next year, Klahn is planning to return for his junior year, with his eye on the team championship. He also hopes to receive a U.S. Open main draw wild card, as Devin Britton did after winning the 2009 title in College Station.
"If that happens, that would be a great honor for me," said Klahn. "But that's up to them. I just want to have a good summer, keep working hard and doing the best that I can. My main goal is to enjoy myself and to keep working on my game. I still have things I can work on."
Whitlinger was more blunt.
"I would be disappointed if he didn't get a wild card into the U.S. Open. He deserves it. It's their decision, but I think he has every right to be in there, and I hope he does."
Also in line for a main draw wild card is Georgia's Gullickson, who won a tight battle of big hitters in the women's final.
Second in the fall preseason rankings, Gullickson, a semifinalist at the 2009 NCAAs, had fallen out of the top ten. Ranked 12th coming into the NCAAs, the No. 9 seed played her best tennis of the season in front of her home crowd, winning every match in straight sets. Included in her run were wins over the No. 8, No. 1, No. 4 and No. 2 seeds.
"I really don't know what it was that turned the light switch on for me," said Gullickson, from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. "I think as the tournament went on the one thing that did improve was my serve. And the crowd was awesome here. I just felt more confident in my shots and in my returns, and I was playing a lot smarter on the court, not going for too much. And I was staying positive. Earlier in the season, I would get really down on myself and it would just kind of take over the whole match."
Gullickson avoided any negativity down 3-0 in the second set to Juricova, a sophomore from Slovakia. After taking the first set with breaks in the sixth and eighth games, Gullickson had a 40-0 lead serving at 0-1 in the second set. Juricova came back to get the break, and with a hold in the next game took a 3-0 lead. Gullickson got the break back, but stumbled in her next service game. Juricova couldn't hold that lead either, and Gullickson began to win more points with her serve, as the set moved into a tiebreaker.
At 4-4 in the tiebreaker, Juricova made a forehand error and a big serve from Gullickson gave her a 6-4 lead and two match points. As the crowd of several hundred groaned, she lost the first on a net cord, and the second to a Juricova winner. Gullickson's forehand, a weapon throughout the day, gave her another match point, her third, at 7-6, but a Juricova backhand winner saved that. Another Gullickson forehand winner made it 8-7, and match point No. 4. A good serve by Juricova had Gullickson on the defensive, but Juricova's swinging volley found the tape, giving Gullickson the title.
"I still can't believe it," Gullickson said. "When she hit that swinging volley into the net, I just kind of sat there, thinking oh my gosh is this really happening," Gullickson said. "I'm so excited. I struggled a lot this year, but it paid off right now. It just feels amazing. It's something that I can't explain."
Juricova blamed her serve, not the vocal Georgia Bulldog fans, for her loss. Asked about playing against a local favorite, Juricova said she enjoyed it.
"It helped me a lot when they got louder," Juricova said. "I was taking it as a challenge. It helped me try harder, I would say."
As for her serving woes, Juricova said that stroke had been an issue throughout the tournament.
"I was kind of up and down on the serve," Juricova said. "I had my chances, and I just didn't take them. But I know what I need to work on now."
Gullickson, who joins Lisa Spain (1984) and Angela Lettiere (1994) as Georgia NCAA singles champions, is planning on returning to school in the fall.
"I love Athens, I love Georgia and I haven't even thought about what's going to happen after winning NCAAs," said Gullickson. "I'm going to train this summer, try to play some tournaments, hopefully if I could get the wild card into the US Open, do that, but as of right now, I'm staying in school."
MATCH POINT, NCAA FINAL, GULLICKSON VS. JURICOVA
In the doubles finals, the 2009 finalists batted .500, with No. 2 seeds Lindsay Burdette and Hilary Barte of Stanford taking the women's title with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-0 victory over top seeds Natalie Pluskota and Caitlin Whoriskey of Tennessee, while Tennessee's Davey Sandgren and JP Smith were again bested by Michael Shabaz of Virginia, who this year teamed with Drew Courtney for a second consecutive NCAA title, 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-3.
Losing to Juricova and partner Mari Andersson of Cal-Berkeley in last year's finals, Barte said the win this year was "sweeter" after the bitterness of that defeat. Burdette was more philosophical about the outcome of the championship match last year.
"I don't look at it as a lost opportunity in any way last year," said the senior. "It was just part of us growing as a team. We had to go through that; it was just another step along the way."
With the women's team title, the men's singles title and the women's doubles title, Stanford took three of the five championships in Athens, and Burdette reflected on the significance of that accomplishment.
"I think it speaks for itself in a lot of ways," Burdette said. "But most of all I think it just goes to show that it's really, really tough to be dominant all the time. I think the fact we haven't been as dominant in the past couples years speaks to how hard the past few teams that were so dominant worked, all that it took to make them the best year after year."
The Virginia men are in the midst of some dynasty building of their own, with Shabaz and Courtney capturing the Cavaliers' fourth straight individual title, again at the expense of Sandgren and Smith, seeded second this year. Smith was on the losing end in the second of Somdev Devvarman's two NCAA singles titles in 2008, and last year he and Sandgren lost to Shabaz and Dom Inglot in the championship match, also in three sets, after winning the first.
Shabaz was serving for the first set at 5-4, when he double faulted three times to give the break back. But in the final two sets, Courtney and Shabaz raised their level.
"It was kind of a similar situation last year," said Shabaz, the first player to win back-to-back NCAA men's doubles titles since Cal's Matt Lucena in 1990 and 1991. "The only difference was last year they flat out beat us in the first set. This time, I personally gave it to them a little bit, but I knew we could come back, and I felt like we were playing good doubles."
With both doubles teams exclusively Americans, there is also a chance the USTA will invite them to compete in the US Open main draw in late August.
The 2011 combined men's and women's NCAA Division I championships will be at Stanford University May 19th through May 30th.