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Thursday, June 2, 2011

2011 NCAA Notes and Observations



Sports Illustrated
's Jon Wertheim writes a regular feature after every Grand Slam, with notes and observations that don't fit into the standard article (or in his case, mailbag,) format. Before the memories start to fade, I'm going to do the same for the just-completed NCAAs. Some of these are important, some obviously aren't. I hope you can tell the difference.

Recognition is overdue for Brent who picked Florida over Stanford 4-3 for the women's title and SoCal Fan who predicted USC's win over Virginia 4-3 in the men's final. They've both won the TopSpin4 video game contest. Fortuntately, I have two copies of the game, one Playstation 3 and one Xbox 360, so I'll just flip a coin to see who gets first pick. Brent and SoCal Fan: Please post a comment to the contest post with your contact information (I won't post it of course), so I can get your prizes to you.
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The team event was more competitive than I can ever remember, with eight matches, 5 women's and 3 men's, coming down to the last match on with the teams tied at 3. Two of those, the Baylor win over UCLA in the men's round of 16, and the Florida win over Stanford in the women's championship, were settled in third-set tiebreakers.
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I used to think the 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. finishes for the day's last round of 16 were bad luck, with lighting failures(Texas A&M 2009) or rain (Georgia 2010) gumming up the works. But there were no such excuses available at Stanford, and if anything, the cold weather should have encouraged faster play. I have it on good authority that the average NCAA match takes 3:45. I'm not a math Ph.d., but even I can figure out that the last match, scheduled for 6pm, is going to start at 8pm or later. And the home team, who may want the night match for ticket sales, actually loses its home court advantage when the fans leave after the doubles point finishes. I love having the men and women together Grand Slam style, which is part of the issue, but I think an 8 am start must be considered.
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Great to see Bay area junior Mackenzie McDonald at the men's team event after a serious illness kept him from competing at Carson, the Easter Bowl or any other tournament since. He says he's feeling better now.
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Hobee's blueberry coffee cake is all that.
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The Stanford and USC pep bands added aural excitement each time they played, but they were restricted from playing except before the match, in the break after doubles and after the match.
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USTA Player Development was well represented at the NCAAs, with Senior manager of Junior and Collegiate Tennis Erica Perkins heading the list that included Tom Jacobs, Senior Manager of Business and Administration for Player Development, Perkins' recently hired assistant Elissa Kinard, women's coach Marc Lucero and men's national lead coach Mike Sell. Although I didn't get a chance to say hello, I understand USTA president Jon Vegosen and his wife Shari where also at the matches prior to a USTA board meeting.
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The USTA College Day was a great opportunity to learn about the recruiting process and also get some candid advice about what to expect from collegiate tennis. I could go to one every month and still learn something, so if your section sponsors one, don't pass it up.
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I witnessed two of the most bizarre endings to a tennis match I've ever seen during the individual tournament and both involved Michael Shabaz of Virginia. I still don't know what possessed Marcelo Arevalo of Tulsa to curse in Spanish so early and so often in his first round match with Shabaz that he was defaulted at 2-0 in the first set. Nor do I understand what was going on in Shabaz's mind when he violated a cardinal rule of tennis after a point penalty in the semifinals against Johnson. Tanking is a fact of life in tennis, and I've seen that behavior in all its facets on the junior and college beat. But I can think of only one other time that I saw a retirement based on anger, and it involved a 16-year-old at the Orange Bowl.
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The Stanford men drew a bigger crowd for their Saturday night quarterfinal match with Virginia than the women did for the final against Florida.
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Some of the best people in tennis don't carry US passports, and that's true in college tennis too. The international student-athletes are generally great representatives of their universities and add welcome diversity--in cultures and game styles--to the sport. But after all the 'what's wrong with American tennis' talk, it was heartening to see 7 of the 8 semifinalists coming from the US junior ranks. Juricova's win snapped a four-year streak of American women's champions. The men have a three-year streak going.
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Speaking of former singles champions, I saw several of them in Palo Alto. Mallory Cecil, the 2009 champion, is serving as a volunteer assistant at Duke and told me she hopes to complete her degree in 2013. Laura Granville, the 2000 & 2001 champion, is back at Stanford finishing her degree. Amber Liu, another back-to-back champion for Stanford in 2003 & 2004, visited for the women's team final, with husband Michael Chang and their baby daughter. Audra Cohen, the 2007 champion, was there in her capacity as USTA Collegiate team coach. The other collegiate team coaches, Jamea Jackson of Oklahoma State, Bo Hodge of Alabama and Ryan Sachire of Notre Dame, were also watching the early rounds of the individual tournament to identify likely future team members.
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As a coach, there's nobody I'd rather have in a last match on court than Duke's Reka Zsilinszka, unless it's Daniel Nguyen of USC or Lauren Embree of Florida.
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Now for the curious case of the unranked participant. The only way to get into the NCAA individual championships is to be ranked in the top 125. If you are, you will get in if you're the top player in your conference. If you aren't ranked, your conference will not get a representative. So when William and Mary's Jeltje Loomans appeared in the selection list, but not in the rankings, I had to find out why. Thanks to NCAA women's sub-committee head Jason Hayes, I got an answer. Loomans was in fact ranked 125 on the list the committee received. But Cal turned in their results from the Pac-10 championships after that list was distributed, and Anett Schutting moved into the rankings, at 104, bumping Loomans out. It wasn't Schutting that suffered, as she was ranked too low to be considered, but an alternate missed out. That rankings rerun may have kept Nadja Gilchrist of Georgia(59) or Janette Bejikova of South Florida(61) out of the women's draw.
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The online scoreboard was just short of a disaster. Many of you have voiced your frustrations regarding the frequent server crashes which I was told were due to too much traffic. Sometimes the livestream worked fine, but there was no way to know the score unless you opened each court feed, where it appeared on the bottom of the screen. On the onsite scoreboard, which was a different system, there was no point-by-point scoring on courts 1-3 while matches were being played on the south courts. And there was no way to know when at the south courts what was going on at the main stadium. Nor was the team score visible anywhere on the south court scoreboards. Problems develop in complicated systems like this, but a backup plan, perhaps based on the "live" scoring that many schools still use, should have been in place. Posting scores to twitter or facebook is hardly ideal, but it is better than nothing. I felt a responsibility to tweet more when I knew the scoreboard was down, and I heard many times over how much it was appreciated, but I am not a substitute for an effective and reliable system. Also frustrating was the lack of an automated system to transfer the scores of the completed matches to the website with a few minutes of their completion. Finding the results of NCAA tournament matches should not be a challenge for a college tennis fan.
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I loved the continuous loop of NCAA team championship moments that played in the cafe and outside the stadium. Any player lunching at Jimmy V's who hadn't recently seen last year's Burdette sisters tackle gasped and groaned when Lindsay took down Mallory on the replay. There's a great sense of history at Stanford; I sat in the John McEnroe corner in the media center.
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Tennis SIDs in attendance often juggle cameras, flipcams, blackberrys (for tweeting) and laptops (for live blogging) during just one match, while also doing press notes. Plus they're called upon to maintain a professional demeanor when the players they know well and care about are suffering an agonizing defeat. Tough, tough job. Thanks to all of you for doing it well.

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