Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Embree's Comeback Ends Stanford's Streak; USC's Nguyen is Hero Again in Third Consecutive Title Run

©Colette Lewis 2011--
Stanford, CA--

If any of the 2,863 spectators at Stanford University’s Taube Family Tennis Center Tuesday were attending a college tennis match for the first time, they are now undoubtedly fans for life.

In two excruciatingly exciting 4-3 matches, the second-seeded Southern California men claimed their third consecutive team championship over top seed and undefeated Virginia, while the University of Florida women, also seeded No. 2, avenged last year’s heartbreaking loss to top seed and undefeated Stanford, ending the longest home winning streak in NCAA history.

Florida sophomore Lauren Embree trailed 5-7, 6-3, 4-0 in the final set of her match with Stanford sophomore Mallory Burdette at No. 2, a match the Gators had to win. Florida’s Alex Cercone had just defeated Veronica Li 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 at No. 5 to make the score 3-2, while Olivia Janowicz had just earned a third set against Stanford’s Carolyn McVeigh at No. 6.

Although that 4-0 deficit might have seemed a deep hole to those who aren’t familiar with Embree, both Burdette, a longtime junior rival, and Embree’s teammates knew better than to count her out.

Embree held serve, broke Burdette at love, held, and again broke a sagging Burdette at love, and suddenly it was 4-4. By this time, at the far reaches of the stadium, Janowicz had taken a 4-0 lead on McVeigh, so the next few games would be critical in deciding the championship.

Embree held again to make it 5-4, and Burdette looked as if she would lose her sixth straight game when she got down two match points at 15-40. But Burdette saved both, ending her spiral with a forehand volley winner. The Stanford crowd, having fallen silent during the lengthy stretch of Burdette errors, began to regain their voices.

Embree held again for 6-5, while Janowicz had worked her way to a 5-1 lead on court 6. Burdette, serving to stay in the match, fell behind 0-30, but held with the assist of a let cord on an overhead and a forehand winner.

The tiebreaker had just begun when Janowicz completed her 6-7(6), 6-3, 6-1 victory, assuring every eye in the stadium would be on court 2 as the sun set and the lights came on.

Embree led 4-2 at the changeover, but Burdette hit two aggressive volley winners to pull even. After Burdette missed a forehand return and netted another forehand, Embree had two more match points. Glancing over at her coach and teammates, Embree’s eyes said she was ready to finish this time, but Burdette again denied her, hitting a good first serve and forehand winner to make it 6-5. Embree saw chance number four evaporate when her defensive lob went just long, and the crowd again raised its decibel level in support.

In the deciding match of the 2010 Team Championship in Athens, it was Burdette who came up with all the big shots against Florida’s Marrit Boonstra, but she couldn’t summon that magic again. She missed an overhead badly to give Embree her fifth and last match point, and when Burdette sent a forehand long, the Stanford fans were left to silently contemplate the team’s first home loss since February of 1999.

It had looked promising for the Cardinal, when, despite the loss of the doubles point, they had taken the lead with wins by Hilary Barte, who beat Allie Will 6-2, 6-4 at No. 1, Nicole Gibbs, who defeated Sofie Oyen 6-4, 7-5 at No. 3 and Stacey Tan, who outlasted Joanna Mather 3-6, 6-2 6-4 at No. 4.

Cercone and Janowicz’s victories were every bit as important as Embree’s, but Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist knew who he wanted on the court in a moment as pressure-packed as a tiebreaker to decide a national championship.

“When it came down to Lauren, I was thinking, hey, we’ve got the one we want at the end,” said Thornqvist, joking that the match had taken ten years off his life.

“We found out why Stanford has a 12-year winning streak here,” he said. “It’s really difficult to win here. It took a gutsy performance and everything we had to get it done, to push us through to victory. Thankfully we had the superstar at the end.”

Embree, from Marco Island, Florida, admitted that after the fourth match point, “it kind of got to me. But I knew if I kept fighting I would have another chance.”

”Every match point she came up with huge shots, “ said Embree, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. “On some points there was nothing I could do, but I knew if I had another chance I would eventually get it.”

Thornqvist was obviously delighted with the Gators’ national title, their fifth overall and his second as head coach, but the memory of last year’s 4-3 loss to Stanford was still fresh.

“It resonated throughout the summer with all our players,” Thornqvist said. “We wrote some letters to them, it was a deep hole to climb out of. I am so happy that Marrit was here and was able to help us win this one (as a student coach). And I’m hoping this win today can help heal her a little bit more from last year’s loss. I’m sure Mallory feels terrible now, and we feel great sympathy for her.”

Burdette was fighting tears while on the press conference podium, flanked by teammate Barte and head coach Lele Forood.

“Obviously it’s not as fun being on this side,” Burdette said, her voice breaking.

“But I had my game plan when I went out there today, I executed it pretty well for most of the match, and it came down to two points. I knew what she was going to do out there, it was just a matter of me executing. I’m pretty proud of the way I played, but obviously came up a little short.”

Forood, who described the atmosphere as the most electric in her experience, spoke matter-of-factly about the end of the winning streak, the longest in NCAA history in any sport.

“The streak doesn’t mean a lot to us,” said Forood, who has led the Cardinal to six NCAA titles. It’s interesting, but it’s not a motivating thing. It’s kind of fun, but it’s trivia for us, a little bit. We’re much more on the year-to-year.”

The men’s team at University of Southern California has an impressive streak of its own going right now after winning their 18th straight NCAA match and third consecutive title.

“For some reason in LA, winning three is pretty tough,” said USC head coach Peter Smith, mentioning the Lakers second round loss in the NBA playoffs and the Trojan football team’s loss to Texas in the 2006 national title game.

But with junior Daniel Nguyen, Smith has his own Kobe Bryant, the go-to guy when the title is on the line.

After Virginia had mounted a furious comeback to level the match after trailing 3-0, the championship would be decided on court 3, where Nguyen and Cavalier senior Sanam Singh were fighting for the last point.

USC had taken the doubles point with little resistance from Virginia, and quickly added a second point with Emilio Gomez’s 6-0, 6-3 victory over Justin Shane at No. 5. Trojan junior Steve Johnson, the tournament’s most outstanding player, defeated Michael Shabaz 7-6(2), 6-3 at No. 1, but the five first sets that USC won were not holding up. Alex Domijan, Singh, and Jarmere Jenkins all forced third sets, while Peter Lucassen of USC also evened his match with Julien Uriguen at No. 6.

Shortly after Johnson made it 3-0, Domijan collected a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory from Jaak Poldma at No. 2, with Uriguen completing a 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 win to make it 3-2. Jenkins and Raymond Sarmiento were at nearly the same stage in their match at No. 4 as Nguyen and Singh, with Jenkins up a break.

Nguyen got his break when Singh double faulted serving at 2-3, and held to take a 5-2 lead. After his performance as a freshman in the Trojans’ 2009 title match and his clinch over Tennessee last year, Nguyen had earned his reputation as a closer, but there certainly was drama yet to come.

At 2-5, Singh saved a match point with a good serve down the T that Nguyen pulled wide, then held to make it 5-3. Serving for the match, Nguyen didn’t get another match point, but he did save four break points before finally surrendering the game, putting Singh back on serve.

Down 0-15, Singh was the victim of an ESPN Sports Center Top Ten play when Nguyen reacted to a perfectly executed Singh volley with a desperate forehand dive that somehow cleared the net.

“I hit probably the best volley I’ve hit all tournament,” said Singh, a senior from India. “From my feet, behind my body, I just swung at it, and he dove and got it back. It caught me by surprise and I hit the net tape again.”

At 15-40 Singh saved his second match point with a drop shot winner, but Nguyen, who had played less confidently when he was serving, forced the action, putting away a backhand volley to post a 7-5, 0-6, 6-4 win. The Trojans had earned their third championship in a row, the only team other than Stanford to accomplish that, and their 19th national team championship overall.

“It was an amazing atmosphere out there, unbelievably loud, very tough to focus,” said Nguyen, from Oxnard, California. “I just seized the moment and took advantage of that situation.”

Smith, smiling on the sidelines of the Nguyen match despite the stakes, insists that his players appreciate the excitement in moments like these.

“I just enjoyed the atmosphere so much today,” Smith said. “I told them to enjoy it and just live it. To have crowds like that, to have our band out, wow. Last year we had ten people against a thousand Tennessee people, so it was pretty cool to share it with our fans and the band.”

For Virginia coach Brian Boland, losing to Southern California for the third straight year was painful, but he expressed pride in the way his team came back.

“It was a great fight by our guys,” said Boland. “We lost what, five out of six sets, lost the doubles point, and it was a huge momentum change to get it back to 3-all. What a great credit to our guys, tremendous fight. It just came down to getting back on serve at 4-5 in the third, and a few net cords, an incredible second point by Daniel Nguyen, wow. That’s what makes it great. That’s why we’re all here. Somebody had to lose a tough match, and it just so happens to be us tonight, so we’ll just get ready for the individual tournament and keep our heads up.”

The NCAA individual singles and doubles tournament begins on Wednesday, with USC Steve Johnson and Cal-Berkeley’s Jana Juricova as the top seeds.

For complete draws, see gostanford.com.


Brent said...

Why is their no discussion of Courtney not playing in singles? He seemed to be moving fine in doubles. That very well could have been the difference in the match. Unless they were worried about doing long-term damage (and it would be hard to put him out there in doubles, if that were the rationale), why wouldn't you at least try him at #5. He certainly would have put up more of a fight than Shane did.

Credit to Nguyen. He just keeps doing it against people he has no business doing it against (Buchanan, Tennessee last year, Singh). At some point, I need to stop being surprised and realize that he is just flat clutch and that players may improve under Peter Smith more than any other coach in the country.

tennisforlife said...

Congratulations to USC and particularly to Peter Smith. Virginia and Brian Boland were out coached. At this stage the coach has one job - get the most out of the players. The USC boys showed up , looked like they were having fun and played as close to their best tennis as the occasion allowed. UVA looked tense , tight and at the start looked like they would rather be anywhere other than on the court - IMO that's down to the coach

UVA - Class said...

Standing Ovation goes to the UVA Cavaliers for their incredible season but, most importantly by the way they handled themselves after they lost. Very classy group of coaches and players.

collegetennis said...


somebody said Nguyen was a walk on his freshman year. Any truth to that. And anyone know Sarmiento's height?

scott said...

ESPNU's coverage was horrible. I'm glad it was televised, but have they ever heard of doing their homework? Mal embarrassed himself today. And how about a split screen? When it came down to Janowicz and Embree, a split screen would've been nice while both matches were at crucial stages. Embree-Burdette match was so streaky. Fun and painful to watch at the same time.

Jerry said...

UVA wins the match if Boland plays Courtney at 5. A 90% Courtney wins at 5 and UVA gets their first title. I can't believe that Courtney could sit that one out!!!

word-hard-tennis said...

Oh man, after being at Stanford, and then watching that match (FL vs.Stanford) last night, I am on a tennis high. Was that not just the greatest tennis match ever? I had no favorite going in, but it was soooo exciting.

Definitely knew to not count Lauren Embree out. Funny, commentator Malivai Washington didn't (seemed surprised) at her comeback, but if you know her from junior tennis, you know!

jimwright said...

It should be noted both runner ups were not at full strength and yet one match was determined by a single break and the other by a single mini-break.

Scott said...

It's great that ESPNU decides to televise the matches, but the coverage was horrible. The announcers were so wrong on so many things. Did they even study the teams before hand? And is it too much to ask for a split screen? I mean, they always seemed to go to the match that wasn't at a pivotal point vs. one that was. Maybe they'll be better next year. At least those watching got to see that epic final match between Embree and Burdette.

Troy said...

Congratulations to USC. 18 NCAA titles - passing Stanford for most all time!!!
Great season by UVA, too. They will be champs soon enough.

Colette Lewis said...

There was discussion about Courtney in press conference. Boland said "It was a tough decision, I could have played him...he hadn't played a match in 3 weeks. If SC would like to go back and try it again after our No. 5 singles result, I'd like to do it...

Colette Lewis said...

Yes, Nguyen came to USC as a walk on.
Would have to guess on Sarmiento's height, but 5-foot-9 maybe?

jimwright said...

Whom do we contact to get Colette on the coverage? How about one of the coaches like other sports do?

Did anyone else experience trouble on the live Stanford fee? I watched everyday live only to miss the "epic" final because of an apparent blackout.

tennisguy2894 said...

Why do the sports networks do such a horrendous job covering tennis? ESPN's coverage was produced as bad as it gets! I can also say the Big Ten Network did an even worse job televising and covering the Big Ten men's and women's tennis Championships this year!

Austin said...

Well, my post yesterday morning said it would be the best finals matchup since UCLA-Baylor in 2005. In my prediction, said USC would win doubles, Johnson would win at #1, Gomez would blast Shane at #5, UVA would win at #2, also thought they would win at #6, but had no clue what would happen at #3 & #4, glad to know I know what I am talking about. However, I did have UVA winning before the tournament 4-3 in the final, I changed it yesterday morning to 4-2 USC if they won the doubles, but if UVA won dubs that it could be 4-3 either way.

First of all, Boland said Courtney was at 90% after the doubles. Isnt him at 90% better than Shane at 100%? No one thought Shane had a chance, the coach even all but said it in the interview right before singles. Re-watch it if you dont know what Im talking about, seemed to me like they were sacrificing #5 to win at #6 instead of moving Uriguen up and bringing in Rooda to play Lucassen. I think the mistake all along was putting Uriguen at #7 and Shane at #6 before the tournament. Shane's game was a terrible matchup against Gomez.

For those who gave me crap all year when I refused to hand UVA the title, apology accepted. USC got better throughout the year, UVA did not. Both teams are pretty darn even. To whomever said Courtney would beat Gomez, I disagree, Gomez has been rolling lately. With that said, if Mitchell Frank can improve he will step right into Singh's spot probably and allow them a chance again next year.

Florida-Stanford was a GREAT match! When Embree cut it to 2-4 I thought she had it in the bag, I was actually surprised when she didnt finish it off up 5-4. The overrule by the ref against Mather at 4-4, deuce, was a TERRIBLE call. Watching on tv it clearly looked wide, Mal Washington echoed that, just terrible. Im curious to see if this Florida team stays together, they only have one junior in the starting lineup, could get crowded for a few of them. I expect these two teams to meet again in the final next year for the tiebreaker(pun intended).

3)Ohio State

Obviously this is before you factor in transfers and anyone going pro early(Johnson & Domijan). I have factored in the recruits coming in, plus Nick Meister who should be back for UCLA. I dont see a dominant team next year, so should be another exciting tournament.

Austin said...

I just saw where Drew Courtney withdrew from singles, so I guess he was not at 90% after all.

Back to Shane, he's a big kid with some powerful strokes. If he gets in the gym and puts on some serious weight and muscle, a la John Isner, he could go from a #5-6 player to #2 player in a year or two.

Colette Lewis said...

Boland said 80 to 90%. Opted for defending doubles title vs. singles.

Colette Lewis said...

I am manually cutting and pasting comments, as they still are not working automatically. Apologies if the names don't come out perfectly.

college coaching said...

college coaching has left a new comment on your post "Embree's Comeback Ends Stanford's Streak; USC's Ng...":

TV coverage was AWFUL!!! Mal even called for Hillary Barte when trying to interview Allie Will. That is embarrassing. At least do some homework before doing coverage. ESPN needs to seriously look at this.

Raymond Sarmiento has grown and pushing 5'11" now.

Not playing Drew Courtney was a disaster decision.

I think Steve Johnson and Alex Domijian will stay in school next year maybe only for one semester.

Boland has done an amazing job putting that program together but Peter Smith knows how to flat-out coach and improve players.

UVA looked so nervous and up-tight all week. Take away the coaches and UVA wins that match.

Every successful team has a leader and no one lead his team better than Steve Johnson.

Brent said...

Austin, I was going to drop in a congratulatory post to you for your sooth-saying predictions. Very impressive. Unfortunately, looks like you already took care of the congratulations in your own post, so I think that box has been checked.

Clg tennis fan said...

Not sure if not playing Courtney was that big of a deal. Gomez was amazing all tournament. Lucasson probably beats Shane at No. 6, too.

What's impressive about SC in these 3 NCAA final wins is the way they jumped all over their opponents in singles. Smith really gets his guys ready.

pretty good said...

Referring to austin's top 10 for 2012. I like your top 5 a lot. Maybe ucla could be moved up a little, with the return of meister and recruitment of Giron. But not necessarily.

I would, however, add pepperdine to that list since they return two great players in Faneslow and Tearney, who both just made the second round in ncaa singles.
I'd also take out duke. Next year all they'd have is Cunha. Carleton will be gone and they will be too young to be in the top ten. Mengel and Saba and Tahir might be overmatched at the positions they'll have to play. Or average at best. Good for their year/age, but not for their singles position.

I don't know enough about the current state of tulsa tennis to comment on that.

Bo said...


No kidding. This wasn't exactly picking George Mason to make it to the final four, so don't break your arm patting yourself on the back.

Austin said...

@pretty good,

Tulsa was my flier pick. I really liked the way they improved throughout the season, much better than their ranking, and everyone is coming back.

Duke only loses Carleton, right?

If UCLA gets back the "old" Meister and adds an international guy to compliment Giron, I think they could be 1/1a with USC.


haha, sorry, I didnt think anyone else would say anything. I wasnt really referring to you with my snipe anyway, they know who they are(just messing guys...and gals).