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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sanchez and Williams Take USTA/ITA Indoor Titles From Defending Champions

©Colette Lewis 2010--
Flushing Meadows, NY--

Steve Johnson of Southern California and Jana Juricova of Cal-Berkeley had the experience, but it was first-time finalists Rhyne Williams and Maria Sanchez who took home the winners' trophies Sunday at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center's indoor training facility.

Williams overcame a nervous start to defeat Johnson, the defending champion, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4. Sanchez weathered a comeback by Juricova, also the defending champion, to complete her 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 victory a short time after Williams had secured his title.

Williams, a sophomore from Knoxville, started shakily in the opening set, going down 5-0 before he finally held serve.

"I was quite nervous, and I don't think I warmed up very well, didn't really prepare," Williams admitted. "I came out pretty flat. Credit to him, he really jumped on it early, used his forehand well in the beginning, and I was kind of lucky to get back into it."

Johnson's serve hadn't been broken in the tournament until the fourth game of the second set, when one of Williams' deadly forehands did the job. Williams got a second break and served out the set, as more of the high school students, parents and coaches participating at the Eastern Section's College Showcase began to cluster around Court 7 to watch the third set.

It started out well for Johnson, with a hold and break of serve for a 2-0 lead, but Williams immediately broke back.

"I had an unlucky game there," said Johnson, a junior from Orange, Calif. "He had a let cord, I missed a short forehand and he hit a winner return, and that changed the whole set right there. If I could have won that game, I think it would have put him away. But he fought back, played really well, and I give him a lot of credit for that."

Williams agreed that coming back from 3-0 down against Johnson would have been difficult.

"I was very fortunate to get out of that game," Williams said. "Getting down a break in the third to Stevie is a big hole to get out of with his huge serve. He could bang aces all over the place and I wouldn't be able to get back into the third. So luckily I got out of that game."

Williams credited his return as a key factor in his comeback.

"I did return very well," Williams said. "For some reason I got a read on his serve. These courts are quick and it's very important to read the guy's serve, and luckily I did capitalize on some second serve returns."

The biggest of those came with Johnson serving at 4-4 in the third set. Down 15-40 after an ill-advised attempt at a backhand drop shot found the net, Johnson hit a good second serve to Williams' backhand, but Williams managed to angle a short return winner to get the break.

"I was not trying to hit it there, absolutely not," Williams said. "I was trying to hit it right down the middle, and I just caught it late and hit a wonderful shot, so I was lucky for that."

"That was one of the best backhand returns he hit all day," Johnson said. "An inside-out angle. Not much you can do about that. He beat me. He played well, served well that last game."

Williams hit an ace to reach 40-15 in the final game, but on the first match point, Johnson's slice approach resulted in a backhand error by Williams. On the second match point, Williams again got a first serve in, and Johnson couldn't get the return back in play. Williams threw his racquet in the air and raised both arms in the air, letting out a long and loud yeah in the process.

"It's very special," Williams said of his first collegiate major, and the third Indoor singles title by a Tennessee player, joining Mel Purcell (1980) and Paul Annacone (1984). "Woody (associate head coach Chris Woodruff) won the NCAAs outdoors, so to be on the list with those guys is a thrill, and I'm very happy that I won today."

Sanchez, a senior from Modesto, Calif., also was playing in her first collegiate major final, but there were no nerves on display from her, as she swung freely, held her serve and broke Juricova twice to take the first set 6-2. Up 2-0 in the second set, Sanchez gave back her break and as each subsequent game went to deuce, there was very little to separate the two Pac-10 rivals.

Juricova, a junior from Slovakia, was showing signs of frustration down 2-0, which is rare for the normally composed 6-footer, but she began to make fewer errors and win the big points in taking the second set 6-3.

In the third set, Sanchez again opened with a break, and she managed to hold serve throughout the final set, despite being regularly tested by the powerful Juricova. It looked like Juricova would finally get her chance to even the set with Sanchez going down 15-40 serving for the match at 5-4. But Sanchez fought off those two break points, with Juricova making a forehand error on the first and Sanchez hitting a backhand winner down the line on the second. A double fault gave Juricova her third break point, but again Sanchez saved it, leaning into another backhand winner. Sanchez earned her first match point with a great second serve that Juricova barely got a racquet on, but Sanchez couldn't convert it, as her attempt at a third backhand winner went wide. A forehand winner on the next point on a floating return of serve gave Sanchez match point number two.

She didn't get her first serve in, but the second was a good one, when and Juricova's forehand found the tape, Sanchez pumped her fist toward her teammates and flashed a wide smile.

If Sanchez wasn't noticeably nervous at the beginning of match, she did admit to some jitters at the end.

"I was definitely nervous," Sanchez said. "But if I'm going to lose or miss, I have to miss playing my game, really going for my shots. Now's not a time to be tentative, because in order to close it out against a good player like that, I really have to play well. I was just trying really hard to relax, just to focus on how lucky I am to be here, to be playing at this tournament, playing for USC."

Juricova, who was 2-1 against Sanchez in the spring, said she wished she had played those last few points differently.

"I wasn't aggressive enough when I had my chances," Juricova said. "I should have been more aggressive from my side, but I guess I can learn for next time. But it's been a great week, the city's just amazing and it's fun to come here, spend time here. It was a great tournament, great organization, so I'm looking forward to next year."

For the senior Sanchez, there won't be a next year, but she knows there will undoubtedly be another encounter with Juricova during the dual season in the spring.

"At least one more time, if not two or three or four," Sanchez said. "Every time we play, I know it's going to be a tough match, a battle, and a good match for people to watch. So it'll be exciting."

Looking back over the four days of competition, Sanchez was already preparing a mental scrapbook.

"It's definitely one of my best college experiences," said Sanchez, who joins Carolina Kuhlman as the only other University of Southern California woman to claim the Indoor singles title. "It's really nice having my teammates here to support me, watching them earlier in the tournament, and West (Nott, assistant head coach), is such a great coach, he's been so patient with me during my career. I'll definitely remember this experience."

The doubles titles went to two unseeded teams, both of whom saved match points on their way to the titles. Texas A & M's Jeff Dadamo and Austin Krajicek earned the men's title with a 6-3, 7-6(3) victory over No. 4 seeds Chris and Marcel Thiemann of Ole Miss, while Florida's Sofie Oyen and Allie Will claimed the women's championship with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 3 seeds Josipa Bek and Keri Wong of Clemson.

Dadamo and Krajicek, who weren't even in the tournament until two of Virginia's teams pulled out the day before competition began, survived four match points in a third set tiebreaker against Georgia Tech's Kevin King and Juan Spir in Saturday's semifinals. Against the Thiemann twins, Dadamo and Krajicek didn't live as close to the edge, holding serve throughout both sets and playing a solid tiebreaker to finish it.

"We had a good tournament," said Krajicek, who also won the tournament's sportsmanship award for men. "We showed up for every match. We got a little fortunate yesterday, but a lot of times you need that."

"Last year we had a good year, had a good streak of matches and got ranked like four, but ran into (Virginia's Michael) Shabaz and (Drew) Courtney first round of NCAAs," said Dadamo. "That was kind of tough, but we've been practicing pretty well, and feel that we're playing pretty good doubles. We've worked hard in practice and it pays off."

Will and Oyen are a new partnership this year, and it was Bek and Wong who beat them in their opening match as a team, in the ITA Riviera All-Americans last month. Will, a sophomore from Boca Raton, and Oyen, a freshman from Belgium, won their regional, but in their first match at the Indoor on Thursday, were down two match points to the top-seeded team of Hilary Barte and Mallory Burdette of Stanford.

"That was a really good victory for us," Will said of their 9-7 win over the All-American champions on Thursday. "And I think we've kind of improved in each match we've played."

Against Clemson, Oyen served for the first set at 5-4, but Clemson was in the midst of a six-game winning streak, and the Tigers took the first set before the Gators could recover. Oyen was happy the finals were not an eight-game pro set.

"We were lucky it was two sets out of three," said Oyen. "It's a little bit easier, you're not that nervous. And we're really excited now that we won."

"Today we went out there and tried to work on what we didn't do in the last match we played against them," Will said. "I'm just happy we came out with the victory today."

In the consolation singles finals, Marta Lesniak of SMU defeated Mary Anne Macfarlane of Alabama 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-3 to take the women's title, and Eric Quigley of Kentucky beat Dennis Nevolo of Illinois 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 for the men's.

For more on the tournament see the ITA tournament site, and usta.com.