USC's Johnson Ends Career with Second Straight Title; Stanford's Gibbs Claims Singles and Doubles Crowns at NCAA Division I Championships
©Colette Lewis 2012--
Joy is not the only emotion 2012 NCAA champions Steve Johnson of the University of Southern California and Nicole Gibbs of Stanford felt after Monday afternoon's finals.
Johnson also felt relief, not only because he had accomplished the goal that brought him back to college tennis--a fourth consecutive national team championship--but because the Trojan senior could finally give his aching body a rest after 12 days of relentless, high pressure tennis. His 6-4, 6-4 victory over Eric Quigley on a warm and humid Memorial Day afternoon at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex gave him a second consecutive NCAA singles title, and he leaves college tennis as the only player to have ever won the team and individual championships in consecutive years.
Gibbs, like Johnson, is known for her competitive fire, and that was on display throughout her 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-3 victory over teammate Mallory Burdette. But even after Gibbs squirmed her way out of a 6-2, 4-1 deficit, escaped a 4-5, 0-30 hole later that set and was down 5-2 in its tiebreaker, the Cardinal sophomore was subdued she won the final point of her nearly three-hour comeback. She had the feelings of her doubles partner to consider, after all.
"I got to look that kind of pain in the eye," said Gibbs, 19. "In the second set, just being down 4-1, 5-4, 5-2 in the breaker, I saw it multiple times, that feeling of putting that much into a match and coming out the loser. So I know how tough it is, and obviously I wouldn't wish that on my teammate in any other situation. I'm happy that I won, but I'm sad for her as well."
Burdette started out as she had all tournament, hitting big and keeping her opponent on defense. She used her power to keep Gibbs running from side to side and tossed in a few deft drop shots and volleys just for good measure. In the second set, she broke Gibbs in the fourth game and held to make it 4-1, but Gibbs got her first break of the match with Burdette serving at 4-2, and the door opened.
"Gibbsy is very good at stepping it up when her opponent is about to close things out," said Burdette, a junior. "That's kind of her specialty. She definitely made it tough out there for me in the end and I didn't have the guts to finish it today."
Burdette was two points from the match with Gibbs serving at 4-5, 0-30, but Gibbs won four straight points to make it 5-5. Burdette was again two points from the match at 5-2 in the tiebreaker, and again Gibbs seized control, taking the final five points to force a third set.
In contrast to No. 5 seed Burdette, who hadn't lost more than three games in a set in her previous five matches, Gibbs, the No. 3 seed, was pushed to three sets twice and was on the court many more hours than Burdette. Rather than seeing that as a negative, however, Gibbs focused on what she had gained from those tests.
"I think it provided me with every advantage," Gibbs said. "A lot of people were asking me how I felt about that scenario leading into this match because they thought she would have the advantage going into the final physically at least, but I was thinking to myself that I was very mentally conditioned, if not physically. I had been through every possible scenario this week--I saw a loss right around the corner in my second round against Joanna Mather and I was able to fight my way back into that one, so I knew I had it in me today, and it proved to be crucial."
In the third set, Gibbs got the only break with Burdette serving at 2-3, and began to play more aggressively, while Burdette's unforced errors, so rare this week, began to multiply. As dark clouds began gathering in the east, Gibbs served for the championship, and predictably, it wasn't all smooth sailing. She fell behind 15-30 with Burdette hitting two winners, saved a break point at 30-40 with an overhead, and after an error by Burdette, got to match point with an ace. Another good first serve, that Burdette returned long gave Gibbs the NCAA championship, the 13th for a Stanford woman.
While Gibbs and Burdette were nearing the end of their second set, No. 1 seed Johnson and No. 3 seed Quigley were, a court away, at that same stage. Johnson had used a break at 4-4, assisted by two double faults by Quigley, to move in front in the first set, and he served it out, punching the air and jumping energetically after securing the set point. The second set followed a similar pattern: the points were short, with first serves dominating, and Quigley blinked first. At 3-3, Quigley double faulted at 30-30, and then netted a forehand to make it 4-3 Johnson. Two quick holds and Johnson was serving for his second consecutive NCAA singles title.
Three big first serves later, Johnson was at match point. He didn't convert the first, sending a forehand long, and on the second, he missed his first serve, which resulted in one of the longest points of the match. Johnson parried several big forehands from Quigley, who eventually netted one. Johnson's reaction--falling to his knees and letting out a primal scream--demonstrated just how much he had kept inside during the week and during his 72-match winning streak.
Although suffering from an abdominal pull sustained in his quarterfinal win over Alex Domijan of Virginia and playing with a shin problem that might be a stress fracture, Johnson still performed several improbable adrenaline-fueled physical feats. He hoisted himself over the chain link fence separating the bleachers from the courts and ran up the steps, seeking his mother and father, who had started in the opposite direction to make their way courtside. Johnson then picked up USC athletic trainer Sandy Olsen and carried her from her position on the far side of the court to the changeover area.
"She's a lifesaver," Johnson said. "She spent more hours with me this week than she'll ever spend with another person in her life."
Johnson said he didn't consider retiring in singles, although he did retire from his quarterfinal doubles match on Saturday.
"I really feel like I kind of let Roberto down," Johnson said of his partner Quiroz. "But after that singles against Domijan, I was full body cramping and they told me not to go out there and play doubles, but I did. But I didn't physically have it in me, and at that point, I hit an overhead in that last game that just completely ripped my stomach apart, I feel like, and I couldn't hit any more balls."
Although Johnson was obviously wincing in pain on numerous occasions throughout the match, Quigley said he didn't detect any physical problems.
"I wasn't aware of that, and I don't think his serve was showing any signs of fatigue or anything," Quigley said.
Johnson admitted that his first serve wasn't affected much by his stomach injury.
"It was getting me more on my second serves," Johnson said. "A lot more double faults, I think, in my last few matches than normal. The second serve, where I would be bending back, would be the hardest motion for me, on the second kick serve. But the first serve, it felt okay, and I knew going into yesterday that I had a maximum of six sets in me, and then I was done, so I really just went out there and gave it my all, hoped for the best, and everything stayed intact."
"No one will ever know how hurt he was," said USC coach Peter Smith. "He had food poisoning last week, and he's probably not going to play for four to six weeks...but I knew if he could see the finish line, he'd get through it, because that's the type of kid he is."
While Quigley would have preferred to win, he was already savoring the memory of his final college match.
"It's unbelievable for me to finish my career like this," said Quigley, Kentucky's all-time leader in singles wins. "I'm a little disappointed, but I can't complain whatsoever. To play my last match in a national championship, I'm really lucky and happy that I got to go out at a place like Dan Magill Tennis Complex, in front of him. It was really special to me."
Johnson will now rest and prepare for a full-time commitment to the professional tour, and can be expected to receive a US Open wild card, as he did last year, losing in five sets to Alex Bogomolov in the first round.
"If the wild card comes, I'll be very happy to go back and give it my best again," Johnson said.
While Johnson was collecting his second consecutive singles title, Burdette was able to put the singles final loss behind her and take her second consecutive women's doubles title.
Burdette and Gibbs, the No. 2 seeds, had already made history by reaching the singles final against each other and playing in the doubles final, as no two competitors from the same school had accomplished that.
With the courts wet from a brief rain shower, the NCAA committee decided to move both doubles matches indoors: the men's final, which was underway, and the women's final, which had not yet begun.
Burdette and Gibbs were facing the unseeded team of Nadja Gilchrist and Chelsey Gullickson, and although the rain had kept the crowd smaller than it might have been, the Bulldogs had a definite home court advantage.
Burdette and Gibbs, obviously warmed up and ready after their singles encounter, got off to a good start, which helped offset Gilchrist and Gullickson's advantage. After taking the first set 6-2, Burdette and Gibbs led 3-0 in the second, but the Georgia team fought back to 3-3. The crowd had hope, but even after Burdette was unable to close it out, serving for the match at 5-3, it was dashed in the next game. Down 15-40 with Gilchrist serving, Gibbs pounded a return winner to claim her second NCAA national championship of the day, by a 6-2, 6-3 score.
"We had no real nerves in the final, we had already been out on the stage earlier," said Gibbs, who is the first woman since Keri Phebus of UCLA in 1995 to capture both singles and doubles titles.
Burdette was happy to play indoors, despite little experience on them in the Pac-12.
"I thought it was great. I love fast courts," said Burdette, who won the doubles title last year with Hilary Barte, and now has one more NCAA doubles championship than her older sisters Erin and Lindsay. "I like people who hit hard, take their pace and make something out of it, so I loved it in there."
Stanford coach Lele Forood suggested Monday was one of the best days in the Cardinal program's formidable history.
"It's probably one of the biggest days in our program's history today," said Forood. "It's very exciting, especially because no one's graduating. It's quite an amazing day, and the fact that it's hard to play your teammate in such a big moment, and then to come back and double with them and win a title is a testament to how mature they both are, and could do what they had to do today."
The men's doubles final between Ohio State's top-seeded team of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola and unseeded Raony Carvalho and Gonzalo Escobar of Texas Tech was at 5-4, on serve in the first set when the rain began. At stake was not just an NCAA title, but for the Ohio State pair, a chance to become the first team to claim all three collegiate majors in the same academic year.
The Ohio State pair had returned to their hotel, thinking they had at least an hour to relax, when word came the match would resume in 30 minutes. Although they didn't have an opportunity to warm up, Buchanan and Rola didn't show any signs of it, and played an excellent tiebreaker to claim the first set 7-6(4). Carvalho and Escobar, who had been playing together as a team only since March and were the first Texas Tech team to reach the NCAA final, lost their first service game of the second set, and were not able to recover.
Buchanan and Rola didn't face a break point in the final set, and broke Carvalho in the final game for a 7-6(4), 6-3 victory and the unprecedented triple crown of doubles.
"We certainly felt the adrenaline rush on the match points, getting the chance to do that," said Rola, a sophomore. "So many good doubles teams have been playing in college that winning those three events, as the only couple, is just unbelievable."
"I didn't really think about it today until that last game," said Buchanan, a senior. "When it was like 0-30, I was like, oh my god, we might do it."
Ohio State coach Ty Tucker pointed out the difficulty his players faced after winning the All-American in October and the USTA/ITA Indoor in November.
"They spent the whole time as No. 1 in the country, and everybody knows if you beat Rola and Buchanan you make the NCAAs (field)," Tucker said. "They never got a day off, because a win against the 1 team in the country will throw you up in the Top 20 right now. They always came for the challenge. It's unbelievable what they did, and I'm so happy for them, especially Chase. He's meant so much to the program."
Men's Singles Final
#1 Steve Johnson (1), SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA def. #3 Eric Quigley (3), KENTUCKY, 6-4, 6-4
Women's Singles Final
#3 Nicole Gibbs (3), STANFORD def. #5 Mallory Burdette (5), STANFORD, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-3
Men's Doubles Final
#1 Chase Buchanan-Blaz Rola (1), OHIO STATE def. #18 Raony Carvalho-Gonzalo Escobar, TEXAS TECH, 7-6(4), 6-3
Women's Doubles Final
#2 Mallory Burdette-Nicole Gibbs (2), STANFORD def. #27 Nadja Gilchrist-Chelsey Gullickson, GEORGIA, 6-2, 6-4