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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Virginia's Frank Sweeps Collegiate Fall Majors with Indoor Championship; SMU's Lesniak Takes Women's Title

©Colette Lewis 2011--
Flushing Meadows, NY--

Harvard's James Blake, Arizona State's Sargis Sargsian and Michigan's MaliVai Washington now have company. University of Virginia freshman Mitchell Frank has joined that illustrious trio in collecting both All-American and Indoor championships when he defeated Dennis Nevolo of the University of Illinois 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 Sunday afternoon at the USTA/ITA Indoor Intercollegiate Championships.

Frank, the top seed, remained undefeated in his collegiate career, but he faced his toughest challenge in those twelve matches against Nevolo, the No. 8 seed. Serving at 3-4 in the final set, Frank was down 30-40, having been passed with an exquisite backhand down the line from Nevolo. The Illinois senior took control of the the next point, and with Frank back at the baseline this time, feathered a drop shot that even the speedy Cavalier would not have been able to track down. But it caught the top of the tape and fell back, and Frank breathed a sigh of relief.

"I saw that shot, and I didn't think it was going to be close,"said Frank. "I thought it was going to go into the middle of the net. But when I saw it hit the top, I was like, ooh, that was a close one. That was definitely a huge turning point, because he made a loose error on the next point and I was able to hold, which was huge, because he was putting me under so much pressure."

Nevolo also singled out that point as critical.

"I thought it was going over for sure," said the senior from Gurnee, Illinois, who had used that play successfully several times during the match. "And then to see it just barely hit the top of the tape and go down, I honestly couldn't believe it. I thought it was going in the whole time. It stinks."

Nevolo overcame his disappointment and held in the next game, but then Frank stepped up his serving. He hit five excellent first serves in the always nerve-racking 4-5 service game, and then broke when Nevolo made two backhand errors at 40-30. Frank forced one of those errors by making Nevolo hit two more shots than typically required to end a point Nevolo had control of, and at ad out, Nevolo hit a forehand wide to give Frank his opportunity to serve for the match.

Nevolo had broken Frank twice in the third set, so he certainly held out hope for a third break, but Frank's serving hand stayed hot. He got three more first serves in, making it eight in a row, to give himself three match points before finally missing. Nevolo hit a backhand volley winner to save the first, but on the second missed a forehand wide, giving the All-American champion his second consecutive collegiate major.

Frank was relieved that he was able to come up with first serves when it really mattered.

"He was putting so much pressure on my second serves," said the Annandale, Virginia native. "He was coming in on basically everything, which is tough, especially because he hits flat through the court, and doesn't give you much time for a look at a pass. That was huge to end up holding and serving out the match."

"He was still serving with the same pace, which was impressive," Nevolo said. "We had a lot of tough rallies and he just maintained his first serve percentage, and that's huge, especially indoors. He did that a little bit better than me at the end."

Frank, the sole player to have won his second ITA collegiate major as a freshman, was happy and excited to join Blake and the other two former professionals in winning both events, but he knows that he still has more work to do.

"It's exciting to be in company like that," said Frank, who turned 19 last month. "But it definitely does not guarantee success at all. I've just got to work even harder now because these guys are going to be back again. They're going to come out like Dennis, feeling like they don't have that much to lose, and they're going to play really good tennis. So I'm going to have to be on my game all the time. And when I go out and play pro events, they're not going to care that you just won National Indoors or All-American. With my goal to play pro tennis, I think this is stepping stone, and obviously it's very exciting to have won, but there's obviously a lot of work to be done."

In the women's final, Southern Methodist University's Marta Lesniak fell behind 4-0 to Florida's Joanna Mather, but roared back to win 13 of the next 15 games to take the championship 7-5, 6-1.

Lesniak, a senior from Poland, admitted to some nervousness at the start of the match.

"I was never in the final of a national championship before," Lesniak said. "So that was back in my head somewhere, but once I was on the court, I tried not to think about it. From 4-0 down, I started to play my game finally, and everything started working."

Although Lesniak can pound her forehand for winners, it was her serve that proved most effective against Mather, who doesn't have the same opportunity to win free points on that shot.

"Yesterday it wasn't working too well," said Lesniak, who had a long and difficult semifinal with Washington's Denise Dy. "Today was a bit better, and that's why most of my service games were much easier than yesterday. My serve and forehand are the best part of my game."

Mather, also an unseeded senior, agreed that Lesniak played at a different level in the final.

"She was serving really well today," said Mather, who beat No. 3 seed Chelsey Gullickson of Georgia and No. 2 seed Nicole Gibbs on Stanford en route to the final. "She was hitting both corners and there wasn't much I could do off of that. If I even got my racquet on it, I gave her a short ball."

Lesniak broke Mather to open the second set, held easily, and then broke Mather again after a long deuce game to take a 3-0 lead. Mather got on the board by holding for 4-1, but Lesniak, continuing to breeze through her service games, held for 5-1. The pressure was back on Mather, and she couldn't convert her two game points, with Lesniak taking advantage and ending the match with a break.

"After the end of the first set, she took off," said Mather, who was also playing in her first collegiate major final. "She played really well, outplayed me today."

Lesniak is the first SMU woman to collect an Indoor title, and she hopes her victory will help the Mustangs in recruiting.

"Our head coach just resigned so we are looking for a new head coach," said Lesniak. "I think it means a lot for SMU as well, so I'm really happy I achieved that."

As for a celebration, Lesniak has no plans for one this evening.

"Maybe on the weekend, but I've got a lot of homework for tonight."

As in the women's singles, the women's doubles champions were unseeded, with Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria of USC taking the title with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over No. 3 seeds Kristy Frilling and Shannon Mathews of Notre Dame.

Most of the action was at the net, with few cross court baseline exchanges, as both teams made their way to the net as soon as possible. Christian, a sophomore, and Santamaria, a freshman, led 4-1 in the final set before the senior pair from Notre Dame broke Christian at 4-2 to get back on serve. Christian, who was not injured but just lacking confidence in her serve, served underhanded in both her service games in the third set, but when they broke Frilling to take a 5-3 lead, it was Santamaria who had the chance to serve it out.

Frilling, a finalist at the Indoor as a freshman in 2008, saved one match point with an overhead, but Christian and Santamaria converted the second when Mathews' return was long to become the first University of Southern California women's team to capture an Indoor title.

For freshman Santamaria, who had never been to New York prior to this week, and took her first subway ride on Saturday, there was yet another new experience.

"I've only practiced twice indoors, in Tennessee, last summer," said Santamaria, who is from Los Angeles. "This is the first time I've played a match indoors."

"I think I've played indoor five times in my entire life," said Christian, from Orange, California.

But in spite of their lack of experience indoors, Christian and Santamaria have played together often in juniors, and feel they mesh perfectly together.

"We played many tournaments in juniors and did well," said Christian. "I think our styles complement each other very well. She's a banger at the baseline and I love to be all over the net, so that can't complement better."

"After playing together so much all these years, we just know each other so well," said Santamaria. "Our great chemistry really works."

In the men's doubles, the Ohio State team of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola took their second collegiate major of the fall, joining Mitchell Frank as repeat winners with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory over Tulsa's Clifford Marsland and Ashley Watling.

The third-seeded Tulsa team got the only break of the first set with Rola serving at 4-5. The teams exchanged breaks midway through the second set, but Marlsand was broken for a second time in the set to give Ohio State a 5-4 lead. Buchanan was unable to serve it out however, and Watling had a game point to give Tulsa a 6-5, lead, but the left-hander from England was broken, and Rola had a second chance to even the match at a set apiece.

At 40-30, Rola's first serve was called out by Tulsa, but overruled by the chair umpire, and the ace gave the second-seeded Buckeyes the set 7-5.

The match turned with Rola serving up 2-1 in the third set. Down 0-40, Ohio State saved two break points, and then made several incredible gets on the 30-40 point, with Rola finally getting a backhand past the staunch Tulsa volleyers to bring it to deuce. The Ohio State team let out a huge roar, which they had heard often from the Tulsa players on key points, but had not indulged in themselves until that pivotal point. Rola went on to hold, they broke Marsland for the fourth straight time for a 4-1 lead and finished their perfect fall season with another championship.

"I think it was the point of the match," said Rola, a sophomore from Slovenia. "If we were to get broken at that point, the match could turn to their side. It was an unbelievable point, with Chase's stretch, and the way I hit the backhand volley, it was great."

Buchanan credited a change of strategy for their success in the final two sets.

"We started seeing returns a little bit better, and I think I did better on his (Rola's) serve, getting more involved," said Buchanan, a senior, who has yet to lose a doubles match this fall, going 16-0. "I was kind of leaving him out to dry a little bit, wasn't picking off enough balls, which made it hard to hold serve."

The last doubles team to win both the All-American and the Indoor Championships was Virginia's Somdev Devvarman and Treat Huey in 2007, but Buchanan and Rola are chasing another great Buckeye team in doubles accomplishments. Ross Wilson and Scott Green won two Indoor titles (2004, 2005) as well as the All-American title (2004), so Buchanan and Rola are one behind in majors, with the NCAAs, which Green and Wilson did not win, still to come.

"Winning both tournaments and having a great regionals too, it's just great," said Rola, who, with Connor Smith, lost to Buchanan and Peter Kobelt in the all-Ohio State regional final. "We hope we can keep it up. We'll try to do our best and see what happens."

The men's consolation singles title went to Wil Spencer of Georgia, who beat teammate Sadio Doumbia 7-6(6), 6-3. Duke's Beatrice Capra took the women's singles consolation title, beating UCLA's Robin Anderson 1-6, 7-5, 7-6(6) in a battle of highly regarded freshmen.

For complete draws, see the ITA tournament page.


deserving said...

Cannot think of a more deserving champion than Mitchell. He is the epitomy of sportsmanship and class. In addition it is great to see his style of game frustrate so many top college players, where some thought it might not be "big" enough. I believe he may need to improve his second serve a bit to get to the top levels of the game but he has shown he has all the goods to be the very best at the college level and compete on the pro tour day in and day out in the near future.

The Dude said...

No doubt he has what it takes to compete among the best at the college level. It remains to be seen if his game translates to the pro level. Curious to know how many winners did he have in the finals. His next year will be very interesting.