©Colette Lewis 2012--
The University of Florida women returned this year to the site of their heartbreaking finals loss in 2010, and succeeded in what coach Roland Thornqvist said was even more difficult than winning a first title—earning another one the following year.
The defending champions played a near-flawless match on a warm and humid Tuesday afternoon at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, downing No. 1 UCLA 4-0, a victory that put them in the record books as six-time National champions and the first Florida team to claim titles back-to-back.
Two years ago in Athens, Florida fell 4-3 to Stanford in the final, with Mallory Burdette taking the last three games of her match with Florida’s Marrit Boonstra.
Some of that pain was softened by last year’s even more dramatic championship match, when Lauren Embree came from 4-0 down in the final set to defeat Burdette in a tiebreaker, which gave Florida a 4-3 win over host Stanford.
There was no such suspense this year, and that was just fine with Embree, who beat UCLA’s McCall Jones 6-4, 6-0 at No. 2 to close out the Bruins.
“I’m glad it wasn’t as dramatic as last year,” said Embree, who was named the Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row. “But I just happened to be the last one that had a chance at clinching. The bottom of our lineup, I was looking at the scoreboard and they were doing awesome down there. It feels amazing to clinch it, but it’s a team effort and I’m so proud of them for being so tough.”
Florida won the doubles point, with Allie Will and Sofie Oyen taking a big lead over UCLA freshmen Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton and closing out an 8-4 victory on court one. Gators Alex Cercone and Caroline Hitimana then put their team up 1-0, coming back from 3-1 down to post an 8-5 win over Jones and Carling Seguso on court three. Court two doubles did not finish.
Florida didn’t take that lead for granted, especially after their experience against Duke in Monday’s semifinal. After losing the doubles point to Florida, the Blue Devils got off to a blazing start in singles and it was nearly five hours before the Gators would claim a 4-3 win.
UCLA’s Morton took an early 3-0 lead on Oyen at 4, but Oyen took the next six games, one of three first sets the Gators would win. Cercone, who had played three hours and 14 minutes on Monday, clinching the match against Duke, was the first off Tuesday, defeating Chanelle Van Nguyen 6-2, 6-0 to make it 2-0 Florida.
“I was a little bit concerned how I would hold up today, after my match yesterday,” said Cercone, a sophomore. “So I’m really happy that I played efficient tennis today. For me physically that was good, and obviously that helped out the rest of the girls.”
Oyen made it 3-0 with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Morton, and by then Embree had taken a 2-0 lead over Jones at 2. Anderson was close to closing out Allie Will at 1 to get UCLA on the board, while at 3, Florida’s Joanna Mather had forced a third set with Pam Montez. UCLA’s Carling Seguso had taken the first set from Olivia Janowicz in a tiebreaker at 6, and they were midway through the second set as Embree kept rolling.
Embree made it 4-0, then 5-0 and 40-0. The junior from Marco Island, Florida only needed one championship point, and when she maneuvered closer to the net to pound a backhand winner, she set off two celebrations: one by the team on the court and the other by the hundreds of Florida fans in the stands.
“I thought we were absolutely fantastic and outstanding from start to finish,” said Thornqvist. “All through doubles on all three courts, I thought we were much better. Singles, what can you say? I thought we executed great on every court. At 4, 5 and 6 that was as good as I’ve seen us play in a long time frankly.”
UCLA coach Stella Sampras Webster was also impressed by Florida’s performance Tuesday.
“They play with a lot of heart and they like to grind,” said Sampras Webster, who was named ITA Coach of the Year Tuesday. “We’re more shot makers, and we weren’t as sharp as we needed to be to beat a team like Florida. You really need to be able to execute and finish points off, and we weren’t able to do that as successfully as we needed to. Florida’s a tough team and they played well.
“I haven’t seen them play all year, so I don’t know if that was their best match or that was just how they play, but they definitely outplayed us today.”
Thornqvist suggested the Gators’ conditioning was a factor, given the short turnaround time after their long battle with Duke Monday.
“I really think all those wind sprints, all the grass workouts, all the Gator Mountains, all those things that are painful certainly paid off for the Florida Gators today,” said Thornqvist, who has now won three of Florida's six NCAA women's tennis titles with Florida, the first in 2003. “Because without them, we could not have rebounded from yesterday’s humongous battle with Duke and be as fresh as we were today.”
Thornqvist also pointed to the Gators lone loss of the year, to Stanford, back in February, as an important turning point in their efforts to defend their 2011 title.
“It really helped us,” said Thornqvist. “One of the really dangerous things is walking around thinking and hoping you have an undefeated season. Then you’re playing every match not to lose. When we got that loss, these guys want to win more than I do, and so we said hey, we’ve got to work harder, have an even better attitudes and play to win. They kicked our butts and I thought that was great for us. It was really not fun at the time, but now, it was the best thing that could have happened to us.”
“We discovered this year that without a doubt, it’s much more difficult to repeat than to do it the first time,” Thornqvist continued. “There are just some inherent challenges you have to deal with and we had to go through some growing pains as defending national champions, but throughout the spring these guys just showed what kind of will and courage and determination they had. What you saw today was the culmination of all that.”
Head Coaches: Stella Sampras Webster (UCLA) and Roland Thornqvist (FLORIDA)
Doubles (Order of finish: 1,3)
1. #1 Sofie Oyen/Allie Will (FLORIDA) def. #6 Robin Anderson/Skylar Morton (UCLA), 8-4
2. #9 Courtney Dolehide/Pamela Montez (UCLA) vs. #22 Lauren Embree/Joanna Mather (FLORIDA), 5-6, unfinished
3. Alex Cercone/Caroline Hitimana (FLORIDA) def. McCall Jones/Carling Seguso (UCLA), 8-5
Singles (Order of finish: 5,4,2*)
1. #4 Robin Anderson (UCLA) vs. #1 Allie Will (FLORIDA), 6-4, 5-2, unfinished
2. #9 Lauren Embree (FLORIDA) def. #98 McCall Jones (UCLA), 6-4, 6-0
3. #73 Pamela Montez (UCLA) vs. #21 Joanna Mather (FLORIDA), 6-3, 3-6, 0-1, unfinished
4. #61 Sofie Oyen (FLORIDA) def. #124 Skylar Morton (UCLA), 6-3, 6-2
5. #79 Alex Cercone (FLORIDA) def. #119 Chanelle Van Nguyen (UCLA), 6-2, 6-0
6. Carling Seguso (UCLA) vs. Olivia Janowicz (FLORIDA), 7-6(7), 2-5, unfinished