©Colette Lewis 2012--
UCLA's Stella Sampras Webster and Florida's Roland Thornqvist have led their teams to Tuesday's NCAA Division I Team Championship, but both knew they were fortunate to come through nearly five-hour marathons decided by the last match on Monday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.
With the heat rule in effect on the tournament's most oppressive day, top seed UCLA defeated No. 5 seed and crosstown rival Southern Cal 4-3, while No. 2 seed Florida battled past No. 3 Duke, also by a 4-3 score. It was the first time since the format changed in 2001 that both women's semifinals were decided by 4-3 scores.
"Honestly, I don't know how we won that match," said Thornqvist. "Duke is one heck of a team. The first hour in singles, they were just beating us to death, making us run. I thought it got to us and I was really concerned that we were going to wear down, frankly. Somehow we found a way...we were really down and out but somehow found a way to get back in the match."
Florida won the doubles point, with Joanna Mather and Lauren Embree taking a 9-8 (1) tiebreaker at No. 2 over Duke's Rachel Kahan and Beatrice Capra, after the teams had split results at 1 and 3.
Duke came out and took the first sets on five courts, but they were unable to put a quick point on the scoreboard. Embree beat Ester Goldfeld 6-4, 6-1 on 2 to make it 2-0 for the Gators, and Joanna Mather had completed her comeback over Hanna Mar at 3, earning a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory that made it 3-0 Florida. But where that fourth point was going to come from wasn't obvious.
Gators Olivia Janowicz at 6 and Alex Cercone at 5 forced third sets in their matches with Monica Turewicz and Mary Clayton respectively, and Florida's Sofie Oyen also battled back from down 5-2 in the second set, taking five straight games to force Kahan into a third set at 4.
Meanwhile, Capra and Allie Will were locked in a war of attrition, with Capra needing 91 minutes to win the first set 6-4, and were at 2-2 in the second set when Duke finally lifted the spirits of its fans with Turewicz's 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Janowicz, making it 3-1.
Although Oyen had all the momentum in her match after taking the second set, Kahan fought back and took a big lead. Cercone, taking advantage of the heat rule, took a 10-minute break between sets and got an early break of Clayton on 5.
It was exactly three hours into the match when Capra beat Will 6-4, 6-4 to make it 3-2. Kahan closed out Oyen 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 to finally pull Duke even, and Duke had hope when, with Cercone serving at 4-3, she fell behind 0-40, but fought back to take that game and the next one. The match took three hours and 14 minutes from beginning to end, but Cercone had beaten Clayton 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 to put Florida back in the final.
"When I came up there, she was just like a surgeon at the end," said Thornqvist of Cercone, a sophomore. "She put the ball exactly where it needed to be every point. I heard somebody say one unforced error in the last five games. That usually gets it done."
Duke coach Jamie Ashworth was proud that his team came so close to unseating the defending champions.
"They are a great team," said Ashworth, who won a national title with Duke in 2009. "They obviously have everybody back from the team that won it a year ago. If you are going to take out a team like that, you have to knock out the champion. You're not going to win by any decision...I thought we pushed them more than they had been pushed in a while and gave ourselves a chance, and that is all we can ask for."
UCLA's McCall Jones had never beaten Danielle Lao, and lost to her as recently as last month, when USC shocked the top-ranked Bruins at home 6-1.
But rather than get nervous when she knew the match was coming down to her court, the senior relaxed, a reaction even she couldn't quite explain.
"I think she got a little tight when she knew it was going to come down to her, and for me, I feel like it was the opposite," said Jones, who beat Lao 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 for the Bruins final point. "I was tight until it came down to me, and then I started playing my better tennis.
"Something triggered in my mind and I finally started hitting the ball and playing the way I wanted to play. I was down 2-0, 40-30 and had a couple of game points against to go down 3-0. I looked at the scoreboard and told myself I had to do it. I knew it was going to come down to me and I think it helped me."
The Bruins took the doubles point, with wins at 1 and 2, with the third court not finishing. Although they collected their first point with relative ease, the final three came much harder.
UCLA took the first sets at 2, 4 and 5, with USC taking the first sets at 1, 3 and 6. None of that meant much however, as five of the six matches went to a third set. The only one that didn't--Skylar Morton's 6-4, 7-5 win over Kaitlyn Christian at 4--gave UCLA a 2-0 lead, and that was three and a half hours into the match. UCLA's Robin Anderson had just taken the second set from Zoe Scandalis at 1, but USC's Sabrina Santamaria and Gabriella DeSimone were just a few games away from posting their points. DeSimone recorded her second straight come-from-behind win, taking out fellow freshman Chanelle Van Nguyen 0-6, 6-2, 6-4 to make it 2-1. Another freshman, Santamaria, made it 2-2 with a 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 victory over Pamela Montez and Southern Cal got their first lead of the match when Valeria Pulido beat Carling Seguso 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 at 6 to make it 3-2. But by that time, Anderson had a 4-0 lead over Scandalis at 1, so the match on 2 between Lao and McCall became the focus.
Leading 4-2 in the third, Jones saved a break point, or rather Lao lost it with an unforced error, and she looked to be struggling with heat, unable to extend the rallies. After Jones held for 5-2, Lao took a medical timeout. Meanwhile, Anderson collected her point, defeating Scandalis 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-2 and Lao had to hold serve to extend the match. Jones wasn't going for a lot, but she kept the ball deep and up the middle, with adequate pace, and the Lao errors kept piling up. At 15-40, Jones missed a return, but on her second match point, Lao hit a forehand wide, and the celebration began.
"McCall loves the big moments and she really embraced it today," said Sampras Webster. "She was able to just outlast Danielle. Danielle is a tough competitor, you've got to win every point. But McCall's so fit, in such great shape, that she was able to maintain that high level and finish the match at a high level."
USC coach Richard Gallien wasn't disappointed in his team's performance, which resulted in their third loss to UCLA in four matches this year.
"Had we got discouraged after the doubles and in the beginning of some of the singles, the day could have finished about two hours ago," Gallien said. "The girls did not give up, they fought to the bitter end. It's certainly painful to be on the wrong end. Respect and congratulations to them, but more importantly to the hearts and souls of my kids."
Sampras Webster, who learned who her team's opponent would be during the press conference, appeared eager, after playing both Cal and USC in this tournament, to take on the challenge of a team they had not played this year.
"We're going to have fight really hard to beat Florida," said Sampras Webster, who won a national title in 2008 and lost in the final here in Athens in 2007. "They're a great team and they're used to this weather, and we're going to have to fight that much more and prepare that much more. It'll be fun, because we don't know them very well, and they don't know us. We'll have to figure things out and adjust as we go. It will be a great match, I'm sure."
Florida has now reached the finals three straight years, and like their match today, the previous two have been 4-3 thrillers.
"It's definitely exciting to be back in the finals," said Embree, who clinched the national title in a tiebreaker at Stanford last year. "I feel our team has worked so hard to be back in this position, where we want to be. So tomorrow we're going to leave it all out on the court and play our hearts out."
WOMEN: #2 FLORIDA (26-1) def. #3 DUKE (29-3), 4-3 - McWhorter Courts
Head Coaches: Roland Thornqvist (FLORIDA) and Jamie Ashworth (DUKE)
Doubles (Order of finish: 1,3,2)
1. #1 Sofie Oyen/Allie Will (FLORIDA) def. #21 Mary Clayton/Ester Goldfeld (DUKE), 8-3
2. #22 Lauren Embree/Joanna Mather (FLORIDA) def. #17 Beatrice Capra/Rachel Kahan (DUKE), 9-8(1)
3. Hanna Mar/Monica Gorny (DUKE) def. Alex Cercone/Caroline Hitimana (FLORIDA), 8-4
Singles (Order of finish:2,3,6,1,4,5*)
1. #2 Beatrice Capra (DUKE) def. #1 Allie Will (FLORIDA), 6-4, 6-4
2. #9 Lauren Embree (FLORIDA) def. #110 Ester Goldfeld (DUKE), 6-4, 6-1
3. #21 Joanna Mather (FLORIDA) def. #59 Hanna Mar (DUKE), 2-6, 6-2 6-0
4. #85 Rachel Kahan (DUKE) def. #61 Sofie Oyen (FLORIDA), 6-3, 5-7, 6-2
5. #79 Alex Cercone (FLORIDA) vs. #66 Mary Clayton (DUKE), 5-7, 6-4, 6-3
WOMEN: #1 UCLA (26-2) def. #5 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (24-4), 4-3 - Henry Feild Stadium
Head Coaches: Stella Sampras Webster (UCLA) and Richard Gallien (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA)
Doubles (Order of finish: 1,2)
1. #6 Robin Anderson/Skylar Morton (UCLA) def. #3 Kaitlyn Christian/Sabrina Santamaria (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA), 8-3
2. #9 Courtney Dolehide/Pamela Montez (UCLA) def. #49 Valeria Pulido/Zoe Scandalis (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA), 8-4
3. McCall Jones/Carling Seguso (UCLA) vs. #75 Danielle Lao/Alison Ramos (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA), 5-6, unfinished
Singles (Order of finish: 4,5,3,6,1,2)
1. #4 Robin Anderson (UCLA) def. #14 Zoe Scandalis (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA), 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-2
2. #98 McCall Jones (UCLA) def. #19 Danielle Lao (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA), 6-4, 2-6, 6-2
3. #26 Sabrina Santamaria (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA) def. #73 Pamela Montez (UCLA), 7-5, 2-6, 6-4
4. #124 Skylar Morton (UCLA) def. #89 Kaitlyn Christian (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA), 6-4, 7-5
5. Gabriella DeSimone (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA) def. #119 Chanelle Van Nguyen (UCLA), 0-6, 6-2, 6-4
6. Valeria Pulido (SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA) def. Carling Seguso (UCLA), 7-5, 3-6, 6-1