Finally and Again: Virginia Men and Stanford Women Claim NCAA Division I Team Titles in 4-3 Thrillers
©Colette Lewis 2013--
For the Virginia men, it was a long delayed first title, for the Stanford women, it was title number 17, but both teams were deliriously happy to come out on the winning end of 4-3 decisions Tuesday at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Center at the University of Illinois.
No. 2 seed Virginia's win over top seed UCLA was possible only when Adrien Puget's winning backhand volley on match point was negated by his toe touching the net as he completed the follow through on his shot up 5-3, 40-30 in the third set against Mitchell Frank in the last match on court.
The chair umpire made the call and both the referee and assistant referee confirmed it, but that consensus didn't make it any easier for UCLA head coach Billy Martin.
"We had it," said Martin, who in his 20 years as UCLA head coach couldn't recall a similar incident. "I guess he touched the net. We'd started to celebrate ourselves. I'm sure they didn't make a wrong call, but wow, it's just hard to imagine we were that close and didn't get it. I've been in the other position, but it's a tough pill to swallow in this particular match, with its importance."
The match had come down to Puget and Frank on court 3 after three hours of play had provided few clues on which was the better team.
Virginia took the doubles point with Jarmere Jenkins and Mac Styslinger defeating Dennis Novikov and Marcos Giron 8-2 on court 1 and Justin Shane and Julien Uriguen earning a 8-5 win over Alex Brigham and Clay Thompson at court 3, with UCLA leading on court 2 when Shane and Uriguen secured the point for Virginia.
Shane, who had lost both his matches in Virginia's previous two NCAA finals, and was serving for the match against USC's Yannick Hanfmann last year, only to lose the clinching match in a third set tiebreaker, wiped away those bad memories with a quick 6-2, 6-2 win over Thompson on court 5.
UCLA had taken the first sets on three courts, with Giron leading Alex Domijan on 2, Dennis Mkrtchian getting up on Styslinger on 4 and Puget blowing past Frank on 3 in the first set 6-0.
Uriguen had given Virginia the first set at 6 against Karue Sell, and when Jenkins won a first set tiebreaker in an extremely well-played opening set with Novikov, the Cavaliers also had three first sets.
But under the pressure of a national championship, and with the quality of the players on the courts, easy two-set matches were unlikely. UCLA pulled even when Mkrtchian defeated Styslinger 6-4, 6-3, and Marcos Giron produced his second consecutive outstanding match in as many days, beating Alex Domijan 6-4, 6-4.
Frank had shaken off the nerves and taken a 4-2 lead in the second set over Puget, with the hundreds of Virginia fans who had made the trip to central Illinois starting a chant of "Mitchell, Mitchell, Mitchell, Mitchell," when he earned a break point for 5-2. He converted it, but couldn't serve out the second set there, although he did squeeze through a deuce game, saving two break points, to win the second set 6-4.
Meanwhile, Jenkins had taken command against Novikov, who began to miss some of the shots he had made throughout the first set. Serving at 3-5, Novikov got down 0-40, saved four match points, but double faulted on his fifth to give Jenkins the 7-6(3), 6-3 win and the Cavaliers a 3-2 lead.
Sell had earned a third set with Uriguen at 6, so UCLA was still very much in the match. Uriguen, unable to hold serve even once in the final set, trailed 4-0 and 5-1, and Sell finished the match off with yet another break for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory and a 3-3 score.
Just as Sell collected his victory, Frank, serving down 3-4, was broken, looking nervous despite his reputation as unshakable competitor. He netted a forehand on break point to give Puget an opportunity to give UCLA their 17th title and their first since 2005, and the junior from France worked his way to that team match point before the ill-fated volley winner that wasn't.
Understandably shaken by the loss of that team match point, Puget made two errors and Frank was back on serve, sending the fans, now all crowded behind court 3, into a cheering frenzy. Frank was down 15-30 in the next game, but Puget missed a passing shot and hit two shots long, and it was 5-5.
The "UVA, UVA" chants began, and Puget, up 15-0 at 5-5, lost the next four points. After the changeover, Puget lost three more points, giving Frank three match points, but the drama was far from over.
On the first match point, Frank called a ball on the baseline long, but was overruled by the chair umpire. On the second match point, Frank's teammates on the sidelines, sure he had secured the win with a shot that Puget somehow got back, yelled out during the point, and Frank netted the next shot. He asked for a hindrance, but since it was his own teammates, the referee did not agree, and Frank was down to his last match point. He finally ended a half dozen years of frustration for Virginia, when Puget sent a forehand wide, setting off a wild celebration on the court and in the stands.
Puget went to the bench and collapsed into sobs, while Virginia head coach Brian Boland and assistant coach Andres Pedroso shared a long, quiet embrace.
"It's been a long journey," Boland said. "We've been here so many times, lost in close national championships the last two years. People kept telling me, colleagues and friends, that it's going to happen, it's going to happen, and all I've ever told the guys, is that we've got to give ourselves a chance. There's no guarantees. It's sports, and we gave ourselves a chance, and this time it worked out for us."
Despite the wrenching nature of the loss, Martin could still appreciate the joy Virginia was experiencing.
"I think I lost five or six finals before I got my one," said Martin, who was an assistant at UCLA before taking over the program in 1994, and was quick to empathize with the disappointment Virginia had experienced the past six years. "There's some consolation there. But does the joy of that overtake the pain of losing this? No."
Boland also made a point of recognizing the former players who didn't win a national title, but were instrumental in taking the program to prominence.
"Losses can be painful, and every player deals with it differently," Boland said. "This is a win for all those former players who didn't have this moment, but they got us here. Somdev Devvarman, who meant so much to our program, Sanam Singh, Michael Shabaz, so many others, who put in such a great effort and it just never turned their way. Today was our day. People were telling me over the years, your day will come. And it finally happened."
Senior Jarmere Jenkins, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, could sympathize with Puget's misfortune, while acknowledging his own emotions in ending his career with a national championship.
"They played their hearts out today and that match point that they had was unfortunate," Jenkins said. "But Mitchell's the hardest worker on the planet, and when you work hard, you can expect good things to happen."
"I had to let go a couple of tears earlier," Jenkins said. "This feels great. I can't put it in words. I remember making my decision to come to UVA, sitting in a room by myself, wondering if I made the right decision. As these four years have gone by, it's probably the best decision I've ever made in my life. Not only have I gotten a lot better as a tennis player, but I've grown as a person. Losing those matches the past few years, coming so close, we were hurt, but this is a special group of guys. We deserved more than anything to win it today."
No. 2 Virginia 4, No. 1 UCLA 3
1 p.m. CT – South Courts
1. #3 Jarmere Jenkins (UVA) def. #27 Dennis Novikov (UCLA) 7-6(3), 6-3
2. #25 Marcos Giron (UCLA) def. #2 Alex Domijan (UVA) 6-4, 6-4
3. #39 Mitchell Frank (UVA) def. #22 Adrien Puget (UCLA) 0-6, 6-4, 7-5
4. #75 Dennis Mkrtchian (UCLA) def. #28 Mac Styslinger (UVA) 6-4, 6-3
5. Justin Shane (UVA) def. #119 Clay Thompson (UCLA) 6-2, 6-2
6. Karue Sell (UCLA) def. Julen Uriguen (UVA) 4-6, 6-3, 6-2
1. #4 Jenkins/Styslinger (UVA) def. #42 Giron/Novikov (UCLA) 8-2
2. #77 Puget/Sell (UCLA) vs. #21 Domijan/Frank (UVA) 7-4*
3. #89 Shane/Uriguen (UVA) def. Brigham/Thompson (UCLA) 8-5
Order of Finish: Doubles (1,3); Singles (5,2,4,1,6,3)
* = unfinished
No. 1 Singles: Blaz Rola, Ohio State
No. 2 Singles: Marcos Giron, UCLA
No. 3 Singles: Mitchell Frank, Virginia
No. 4 Singles: Devin McCarthy, Ohio State
No. 5 Singles: Garrett Brasseaux, Georgia
No. 6 Singles: Karue Sell, UCLA
No. 1 Doubles: Jarmere Jenkins/Mac Styslinger, Virginia
No. 2 Doubles: Adrien Puget/Karue Sell, UCLA
No. 3 Doubles: Justin Shane/Julen Uriguen, Virginia
Most Outstanding Player
Jarmere Jenkins, Virginia
Of all the adjectives used to describe the Stanford women's tennis program, underdog is not one of them. Their 4-3 win over Texas A&M Tuesday evening gave the Cardinal their 17th title, while Florida, their nearest rival, has six.
But entering the tournament as the No. 12 seed, Stanford defeated the No. 5, No. 4, No. 1 and No. 3 seeds, becoming the lowest seed to ever win an NCAA team title, and proving that reaching their peak at the right time and staying healthy could put them back in the winner's circle again.
"This has been a great team for a long time," said Stanford head coach Lele Forood. "A lot of them are juniors and seniors, who contributed heavily to this win, and for Kristie Ahn to clinch, it's just poetic justice. She's been the missing player for the last two years at the end of the season, and we weren't able to get it done without her, and when we got her back, we got it done."
Ahn, who suffered an ankle injury and couldn't compete in 2011 and barely played due to assorted injuries in the months prior to the 2012 NCAA tournament, trailed Cristina Stancu 2-0 in the final set of the last match on Tuesday night.
She roared back to win the final six games of the match, earning a 7-5, 4-6, 6-2 victory that gave Stanford a 4-3 decision over a Texas A&M team making its first appearance in a national final.
Stanford took the doubles point on court 3, with Natalie Dillon and Krista Hardebeck defeating twins Paula and Ines Deheza 8-5, after Texas A&M had won on court 1, and Stanford on court 2.
As they had done against UCLA in the semifinals, Texas A&M came out strong in the singles, taking four first sets, while Stanford could manage only two.
The most surprising first set was at line 1, where 2012 NCAA champion Nicole Gibbs had lost 6-0 to Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar, and was down 2-0 in the second set.
Forood, who doesn't spend much time coaching on court, made a brief visit to the bench after the first set and listened more than she talked.
"She said, I have to win this match," Forood said. "I have to do some things differently, because I have to win this match. And so it was her urgency and I think she found a little more energy. I think she felt a little sluggish in her legs early in the match and her opponent was playing beautifully, extremely well. But she found some energy, was able to plug away, get the momentum in her favor and things got rolling for her after that."
Gibbs wanted to provide a lift to her teammates, and while she had confidence in them, she knew her point was crucial.
"I've had a leadership role on this team, and it's really hard to see your No. 1 player go down 6-0, 6-0," said Gibbs. "We saw that yesterday with Florida, when I was lucky enough to rattle a couple off of Embree. That's a tough blow to come back from, so I think just sitting there thinking about the impact I was having on my team from losing just made me dig a little bit deeper, get through being tired, being exhausted from all the energy we've been putting into this week as captains, and just push through. Evidently it worked. It was the weirdest match I've ever played in my life, but I'll take it today."
After losing the first eight games of the match, Gibbs won the next 12, and although the result, a 0-6, 6-2, 6-0 win for Gibbs, was an unusually abrupt shift in games won, the points remained well-played and entertaining, with errors rare and winners frequent.
Prior to Gibbs' comeback, Stacey Tan had posted Stanford's second point with a 7-5, 6-3 win over Ines Deheza, making it 3-0, but the Cardinal was down a set or in the third in the four other matches, with Stancu taking the second set from Ahn at line 2.
Anna Mamalat gave the Aggies their first point with a 6-1, 7-5 win over Ellen Tsay at 5, and Nazari Urbina came back from a break down in the second set to earn a 6-3, 7-6(3) victory over Hardebeck at 3 to cut the deficit to 3-2. Meanwhile Stefania Hristov had built a 4-0 lead in the third set over Dillon on court 6, and Ahn began to realize that it might come down to her.
"I was looking around and I thought we could get some third sets going on at 3 and 5, and Dilly was in the third set," said Ahn. "So I was not complacent, but thinking we were in a good place, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that, oh, this could come down to me."
Ahn could sense that Stancu was nervous at that prospect.
"She started shanking balls, and pushing a little bit," Ahn said. "But I was like, this is it. Watching Krista last night was so inspiring, and I kind of drew from that. I can't tell you the amount of good energy I felt, how absurd that it was coming down to a 4-2, 4-3 match in the finals, it's crazy. And I started smiling uncontrollably. Life does not get more absurdly wonderful than this."
By the time Hristov completed her 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 victory over Dillon, Ahn was up 5-2 and serving for the match and the title. She saved two break points for deuce, when Dillon got a point penalty for throwing her racquet after her loss to Hristov. The penalty would be assessed to Ahn, but not until the next game, and as it turned out, there wouldn't be another one. Stancu hung tough, saving one match point when Ahn netted a forehand, and a second on some stellar defense, handling Ahn's massive forehand time after time and finally drilling one of her own at Ahn.
But on the next point, Stancu's slice drifted long, and for match point number three, Ahn produced an excellent first serve, which Stancu got a racquet on, but couldn't get into the court.
The celebration was exuberant and the satisfaction immense for both teams.
"There's no question the eight ladies on our team are awful good," said Howard Joffe, in his second season at Texas A&M. "In respect to today's match, I certainly don't feel we played our very best, and we still came within a couple points here and there of actually winning the title. We have a very good team."
For Gibbs, who returned to school this year with the goal of winning the team title, securing it was much more fulfilling that her individual titles in singles and doubles in 2012.
"It means so much more to me than any of the individual titles last year," Gibbs said. "Obviously it's awesome to have all three under my belt, but this was the one I wanted. I came back to school after having such a good year to chase after this title, and having it just means so, so much. It's everything I ever could have wanted. I'm so happy I got it."
No. 12 Stanford 4, No. 3 Texas A&M 3
5 p.m. CT – South Courts
1. #13 Nicole Gibbs (STAN) def. #4 Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar (TAMU) 0-6, 6-2, 6-0
2. #25 Kristie Ahn (STAN) def. #68 Cristina Stancu (TAMU) 7-5, 4-6, 6-2
3. #52 Nazari Urbina (TAMU) def. #14 Krista Hardebeck (STAN) 6-3, 7-6(3)
4. #103 Stacey Tan (STAN) def. Ines Deheza (TAMU) 7-5, 6-3
5. Anna Mamalat (TAMU) def. #92 Ellen Tsay (STAN) 6-1, 7-5
6. Stefania Hristov (TAMU) def. Natalie Dillon (STAN) 6-2, 3-6, 6-1
1. #18 Stancu/Hristov (TAMU) def. #8 Ahn/Gibbs (STAN) 8-3
2. #28 Tan/Tsay (STAN) def. #49 Wen/Sanchez-Quintanar (TAMU) 8-4
3. Dillon/Hardebeck (STAN) def. Deheza/Deheza (TAMU) 8-5
Order of Finish: Doubles (1,2,3); Singles (4,1,5,3,6,2)
No. 1 Singles: Nicole Gibbs, Stanford
No. 2 Singles: Kristie Ahn, Stanford
No. 3 Singles: Nazari Urbina, Texas A&M
No. 4 Singles: Stacey Tan, Stanford
No. 5 Singles: Olivia Janowicz, Florida
No. 6 Singles: Caroline Hitimana, Florida
No. 1 Doubles: Cristina Stancu/Stefania Hristov, Texas A&M
No. 2 Doubles: Stacey Tan/Ellen Tsay, Stanford
No. 3 Doubles: Krista Hardebeck/Natalie Dillon, Stanford
Most Outstanding Player
Nicole Gibbs, Stanford