©Colette Lewis 2010--
What a difference a year makes. Not in the outcome--the USC Trojans are again NCAA men's tennis champions after a 4-2 victory over Tennessee Tuesday night--but in their state of mind as the NCAA finals again approached.
"Last year was something unbelievable," senior Robert Farah said of the title USC won in College Station, Texas. "This year, I don't know what happened, but I thought we were going to win the whole way. I really liked that feeling. I was out there and I really trusted that we could do this. Last year in my match against (Ohio State's Bryan) Koniecko, I was so nervous. This year I didn't have my best start, but it wasn't because I was nervous. I was completely relaxed out there, just playing another tennis match. And I think that really made a difference in our team and their team."
"I completely agree," said head coach Peter Smith. "As the match went on, I was kind of going, this is the national championship, but it was just like, normal."
The No. 5 Trojans knew they were on the road however, as it was Tennessee, the second seeds, who had the bulk of the fans in the Dan Magill Tennis Complex bleachers. A thousand or so made the trip south to Athens, wearing the distinctive neon orange and waving pompons, hoping to spur the Volunteers to their first national title after two previous appearances in the final.
It started off well for Tennessee, as none of their three doubles teams lost their serves, getting 8-6 wins at No. 1 and No. 3 to take a 1-0 lead.
But the singles were a different story, as Southern Cal claimed five of six first sets, with Farah coming from a break down at No. 1 to take a tiebreaker from JP Smith in their opening set. Tennessee's Tennys Sandgren was the only Volunteer to take a first set, twice coming from a break down against Daniel Nguyen at No. 4 and winning it in a tiebreaker.
Steve Johnson brought Southern Cal even with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Boris Conkic at No. 2, and the match stayed at 1-1 for a long time. Volunteer freshman Rhyne Williams earned a split with Jaak Poldma at No. 3, and he gave Tennessee a brief 2-1 lead with a 1-6, 6-2, 6-1 win. Farah countered almost immediately, beating Smith 7-6(3), 6-4 to make it 2-2, while Nguyen had earned a split with Sandgren.
With the top three courts finished, the crowd moved to the bleachers behind courts 4,5 and 6, where the match would be decided. Tennessee's Matt Brewer and Matt Kecki were locked in a seesaw battle that eventually ended with Brewer winning a tiebreaker to earn third set. USC's Peter Lucassen was serving for the match against Matteo Fago at No. 6, leading 6-3, 5-2, but he was broken and needed three more games before giving the Trojans a 3-2 lead.
In the other two matches, Brewer was up 3-1 in the third and Nguyen was up 2-0 in the third. Although Smith described Nguyen as a "very nervous kid," there was no sign of that in the second and third sets against Sandgren. Moving beautifully and countering all the pace that Sandgren could throw at him, Nguyen recognized that he had raised his level.
"I just started to play more intense, play smarter," said the sophomore. "I just stayed positive. At these moments you just have to stay positive to achieve, so that's what I did."
He also got a lot of vocal support from his teammates, who had moved into the bleachers above his court, where they were surrounded by Volunteer fans. Farah decided that a soccer chant was in order and began the ole, ole, ole, ole song that is heard in football stadiums across the world, only with Nguyen's nickname, D-win, inserted after the first four oles.
"He's a big soccer fan," Farah said. "I don't know where he got it, he lived in Barcelona, so that's where I think he got it, and I'd been in soccer games in Colombia. I thought it was a great chant for the moment."
Nguyen admitted that he heard the chant and it made him laugh, but it was no distraction, as he proceeded to take a 5-0 lead. Meanwhile, Brewer had a match point to make it 3-3 serving at 5-4 in the third, but a missed volley sent the game back to deuce.
The quality of tennis in the Sandgren - Nguyen match was extremely high, with the score failing to indicate just how close each point was. It was Nguyen who won most of them however, and the tournament's most valuable player broke Sandgren in the final game to set off a raucous celebration that included an Gatorade ( which was actually ice water) dowsing of Smith.
While the Trojans celebrated national title No. 18, six of which were earned since the 1977 format change, Tennessee coach Sam Winterbotham was left seeking answers.
"I think tonight is a great example of me not knowing what to do," Winterbotham said. "The talent we have on this team is fantastic, they came together as a team, they did everything right, and I think they got nervous tonight. I needed to calm those nerves and turn them around, and I don't think I was able to do that."
"I think they (USC) played to win, we wanted to win," Winterbotham said. "Maybe we wanted to win a little too much. But I'm proud of what we've accomplished."
Smith sensed there would be no stopping his team.
"We weren't afraid of the moment," Smith said. "That's the toughest thing to have, to teach, whatever. I don't know if you can teach it. But we weren't going to be afraid out there, that was for sure. And you can see the way the guy finished the match off. Wow."
The NCAA individual tournament begins on Wednesday, with Tennessee's Conkic, Williams and Smith and Southern Cal's Farah and Johnson among the 64 men's competitors. In fact, Williams plays Johnson. See ncaa.org for the complete draws.
#5 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (25-3) def. #2 TENNESSEE (31-2), 4-2
Head Coaches: Peter Smith (Southern California) and Sam Winterbotham (Tennessee)
Singles competition (Order of finish: 2,3,1,6,4*)
1. #9 Robert Farah (USC) def. #1 J.P. Smith (TENNESSEE) 7-6 (7-3), 6-4
2. #3 Steve Johnson (USC) def. #36 Boris Conkic (TENNESSEE) 6-3, 6-2
3. #45 Rhyne Williams (TENNESSEE) def. #89 Jaak Poldma (USC) 1-6, 6-2, 6-1
4. #83 Daniel Nguyen (USC) def. #111 Tennys Sandgren (TENNESSEE) 6-7 (3-7), 6-1, 6-0
5. #115 Matt Brewer (TENNESSEE) vs. Matt Kecki (USC) 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 5-4, unfinished
6. #121 Peter Lucassen (USC) def. Matteo Fago (TENNESSEE) 6-3, 6-4
Doubles competition (1,3)
1. #3 J.P. Smith/Davey Sandgren (TENN) def. #2 Robert Farah/Steve Johnson (SC) 8-6
2. #12 Rhyne Williams/Boris Conkic (TENN) vs. JT Sundling/Daniel Nguyen (SC) 7-4, unfinished
3. Matteo Fago/Edward Jones (TENN) def. Jaak Poldma/Jason McNaughton (SC) 8-6
Tuesday, May 25, 2010