Johnson Goes for Second Straight Singles Title Against Quigley; Gibbs and Burdette Meet in All-Stanford Final at NCAA Division I Championships
©Colette Lewis 2012--
Four team titles and an NCAA singles championship haven't yet sated Steve Johnson's appetite for college tennis. After a hot and grueling week in Athens, the Southern California senior knows there is one last morsel left--another title and a US Open wild card. Kentucky's Eric Quigley, a senior who also knows his last match is for the NCAA championship, is the last player with an opportunity to end Johnson's 71-match winning streak.
The women's final will feature teammates and doubles partners Nicole Gibbs and Mallory Burdette of Stanford, who have made some history of their own. By reaching the finals in singles and in doubles, the pair become the first women to play in both championship matches.
Gibbs, the No. 3 seed, beat top seed Allie Will of Florida 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, in her characteristically gritty fashion. Leading 3-1 in the third set, Gibbs needed to consolidate her break, but was down 0-30. Four times Will hit an overhead, and four times Gibbs got it back in play, eventually coming up with backhand passing shot to win the point. She went on to hold for a 4-1 lead, then broke in the next game to assure herself a place in the final.
"That was a definite turning point," said Gibbs, who reached the NCAA semifinals last year as a freshman. "It gave me the confidence to finish out the set. Allie Will is a great competitor and I wasn't counting her out at 3-1, especially when she was up 0-30 in that game. So just sticking in that point, making her play for it. Lele (Forood) told me on the previous changeover to stop lobbing her when she came to the net and to pass her, and I ended with a backhand down-the-line passing shot, so I think that made her happy too."
Will gave credit to Gibbs, whom she had beaten this year in a dual match at Stanford.
"I know she is going to compete and fight as hard as she can, like she always does," said Will, a junior. "She did a great job of that today. She served better than normal today, made a lot of first serves, probably because I started going after her second serves. She did a good job of adjusting in the third."
While Gibbs was still working to put Will away, Burdette was in the stands with her sister Lindsay, cheering for her teammate. Burdette had eliminated freshman Zsofi Susanyi of Cal 6-2, 6-2 in just over an hour, using her impressive power and an improved attitude to post her fifth consecutive straight-set win.
"I think in terms of my mental game, this is the best that I've played," said Burdette, a junior who grew up in the central Georgia town of Jackson. "In terms of my tennis game, it's not anything spectacular, and I try to think of them as two separate things."
Two people with intimate knowledge of Burdette's game weren't buying it. Coach Forood said she thought Burdette was playing her best tennis--she hasn't lost more than three games in any set--and Susanyi agreed.
"She was on fire today," said Susanyi, who was 0-2 against Burdette this season. "She played a really, really good match. I honestly think she played better today than she did in our last two matches."
Gibbs and Burdette have already played once, back in the October regional, when Gibbs won 7-6 in the third. At stake Monday is more than a berth in the National Indoor. Because both are Americans, the winner will likely receive a main draw wild card into the US Open.
"It's a bonus," said Burdette. "If I were to win, we'd still have to wait to see if the USTA would want to give a wild card to me, so it's just so far off, so far out of my control, I can't do anything about that. And there's a lot more tennis to be played before then."
Gibbs admitted that she thought about the wild card possibility during the week.
"It's a significant motivating factor," Gibbs said. "Just knowing it's there, or possible there. It's kept me resilient in a few situations this tournament when I was on the brink of breaking down, especially in the Joanna (Mather) match, down 3-0 in the third, down points for 4-0, and I'm thinking, I want to keep myself in the hunt for the title and potentially a wild card."
Gibbs and Burdette are the first teammates to play each other in the final since 2001, when Stanford's Laura Granville won the second of her two consecutive titles against Lauren Kalvaria. Forood was in her first year as Stanford head coach then and also was head coach in 2005, when two of her doubles teams played each other in the final, so she knows how to cope.
"It's as easy as it gets," Forood said. "We go sit in the stands, high up."
"I'm excited for a battle tomorrow," said Burdette. "I think there are going to be some great points out there, a lot of good sportsmanship, I hope, but no matter what, there's going to be a battle. And I hope we both enjoy it. As they say, may the best player win, on that day."
"We're both looking forward to the competition. It's what we love and what we live to do, so the fact that we're in the finals together is incredible," Gibbs continued. "We have a for sure Stanford winner and you can't go wrong with that, but I think we both have the will to win, so it's going to be a very entertaining match tomorrow."
The men's final won't have the same family dynamic, but both Johnson and Quigley are seniors who are looking to end their careers with an NCAA title and a US Open wild card.
Quigley, the No. 3 seed, showed he was ready for the pressure of the final by coming back to defeat Ohio State's Blaz Rola, a 9-16 seed, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6(1), while serving from behind throughout the final set.
Whenever his service games got close, Quigley used his serve to bail him out, and Rola was unable to shake his confidence in that stroke in the 4-5 and 5-6 games.
"I was serving great, so there was no need for me to get tight," said Quigley, the third Wildcat to reach the NCAA singles final. "I was able to serve great, I thought, the whole third set and I got a great start in the tiebreaker and didn't let go. I really wasn't nervous and I was playing great. I've had a great record in tiebreakers this tournament (4-0 including today), so I was liking my chances if I could get to a tiebreaker."
Rola started the tiebreaker with a double fault and never recovered from that.
"My focus just went down after that first double fault," said Rola, a sophomore from Slovenia. "I'm really disappointed about that tiebreaker. It was only one point in the tiebreaker, it's a huge mistake, but it shouldn't have thrown me off or anything. You have to win seven points and that was only one."
Rola managed an angled, running forehand pass to make it 2-1, but lost the next two points on his serve, and Quigley hit two good serves, including an ace, that made it 6-1. The right-hander from Pewee Valley, Kentucky needed only one of those match points, with Rola netting a backhand early in the rally.
Quigley said he won't approach the final any differently despite all that is at stake.
"I'm just trying to make it as routine as possible, just another match," Quigley said. "If I try to think of what's on the line, I think I will start to get nervous. I've been playing great, not thinking about nerves, so I'll just keep it a routine match."
Johnson has considerably more experience in high-stakes matches, with his four NCAA team titles, a singles title last year, and a first round match at the US Open, yet he recognizes there is plenty of pressure awaiting him in his final match.
"To have the potential wild card on the line for the US Open just adds to the pressure of an NCAA final," said Johnson, who beat Tennessee's Rhyne Williams in a three-set final last year. "But having been there in the team and in the singles last year, I think I'll be able to handle it pretty well. I know what it feels like to be there, so I'll come out ready to go."
In his 6-4, 7-5 semifinal win over 2010 champion Bradley Klahn of Stanford, Johnson was able to serve well enough to keep the pressure on his longtime friend and frequent college opponent.
"I played smart today, served really smart," said Johnson, who was only broken once in the match, after taking a 2-0 lead in the second set. "I think that was the key, knowing I could hold easy and take my chances on his serve."
With Klahn serving at 4-5, 0-30 in the first set, Johnson came up with his best shot of the day, anticipating perfectly and picking off a blazing forehand from Klahn after a lightning-quick rally. Two points later, Johnson had the first set, and as Klahn said later, Johnson is tough to beat when he gets a lead.
"He's a great front-runner, and I knew going in if I could get that first break or get on top of him a little early, I could really change a lot of things," said the left-hander from Poway, Calif. "In the past, he's gotten up early breaks and the way he's confident in his serve, he rides that momentum."
Johnson did falter a little in the second set, after going up 2-0, but he shrugged it off.
"I made a serving mistake 30-15 up, then a let cord, he hits a winner and comes up with an incredible lob," said Johnson. "Not much you can do about it, but after that point it was just kind of trading holds until I was fortunate enough to get that break at 5-6."
At 40-30 in the final game, Klahn missed two forehands and Johnson had a match point. He didn't have to hit a ball, as Klahn double faulted to give Johnson the win.
Quigley and Johnson have not played since last year's quarterfinal in the NCAA team championships, a match Johnson won 6-4, 6-2.
"I've known Eric for a long time," said Johnson. "I know how he's going to come out and play. He's going to hit the ball hard and go for his shots. I know what it takes to beat him and hopefully I can execute tomorrow," said Johnson.
The doubles finals are set, with Burdette and Gibbs, the No. 2 seeds, taking on hometown favorites Chelsey Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist of Georgia. Burdette and Gibbs defeated the unseeded Tennessee team of Natalie Pluskota and Kata Szekely 7-6(1), 6-1, while the unseeded Gullickson and Gilchrist delighted the hundreds of Bulldogs fans with a 7-6(5), 6-4 victory over unseeded Courtney Dolehide and Pam Montez of UCLA 7-6(5), 6-4. Burdette is the defending NCAA doubles champion, having won the title last year with Hilary Barte.
Although there is no longer a possibility of a Triple Crown (singles, doubles and team titles) for USC, the Ohio State Buckeyes can claim a similarly impressive distinction. Top seeds Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola, who reached the final with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over unseeded Costin Paval and Dane Webb of Oklahoma, can become the first team to win all three collegiate majors in the same year. Buchanan and Rola also won the ITA All-American in October and the USTA/ITA Indoor Intercollegiate Championships in November.
In their match against Paval and Webb, which started in bright sunlight and ended around 9 p.m. under the lights, Buchanan and Rola trailed 3-0 in the final set before turning it around.
"We were struggling," said Buchanan. "We were just able to find a way."
"Maybe during the doubles I was thinking this was one of the days when everything goes wrong," said Rola, who had lost in the semifinals to Quigley just a few hours earlier. "Thank god it's not that day."
After breaking Paval to take a 5-4 lead in the final set, Rola served his team to a 40-0 lead. Three match points came and went and when Rola netted a forehand, they were down break point. But the left-hander snapped off an ace and a lob winner to earn their fourth match point, which they converted when Webb just missed a forehand return.
"It was not fun standing over there for the serve on that break point," said Rola. "But a good serve, a slice out wide, helped me a lot today."
Rola and Buchanan will play unseeded Raony Carvalho and Gonzalo Escobar of Texas Tech, who have yet to lose a set in the tournament. On Sunday, Carvalho and Escobar defeated Chris and Marcel Thiemann of Ole Miss 6-4, 6-2 and are the first players from Texas Tech to advance to an NCAA final.
Both the men's and women's singles finals are scheduled for noon on Monday. The doubles will follow on the two courts, with the women's doubles likely to be later due to the need for rest for Gibbs and Burdette.
Men’s Singles Semifinals
#1 Steve Johnson (1), SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA def. #36 Bradley Klahn, STANFORD, 6-4, 7-5
#3 Eric Quigley (3), KENTUCKY def. #9 Blaz Rola (9-16), OHIO STATE, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6(1)
Women’s Singles Semifinals
#3 Nicole Gibbs (3), STANFORD def. #1 Allie Will (1), FLORIDA, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3
#5 Mallory Burdette (5), STANFORD def. #13 Zsofi Susanyi (9-16), CALIFORNIA, 6-2, 6-2
Men’s Doubles Semifinals
#1 Chase Buchanan-Blaz Rola (1), OHIO STATE def. #10 Costin Paval-Dane Webb, OKLAHOMA, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4
#18 Raony Carvalho-Gonzalo Escobar, TEXAS TECH def. #17 Chris Thiemann-Marcel Thiemann, MISSISSIPPI, 6-4, 6-2
Women’s Doubles Semifinals
#27 Nadja Gilchrist-Chelsey Gullickson, GEORGIA def. #9 Courtney Dolehide-Pamela Montez, UCLA, 7-6(5), 6-4
#2 Mallory Burdette-Nicole Gibbs (2), STANFORD def. #10 Natalie Pluskota-Kata Szekely, TENNESSEE, 7-6(1), 6-1