Gibbs Defends NCAA Singles Title; Rola Ends Jenkins Bid for Triple Crown; Southern California and Virginia Win Doubles Titles
©Colette Lewis 2013--
Stanford's Nicole Gibbs and Ohio State's Blaz Rola took the courts Monday at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Center at the University of Illinois knowing what it felt like to hold an NCAA champion's trophy. The No. 9 seeded juniors got to relive that moment one year later, with Gibbs defeating Mary Weatherholt of Nebraska 6-2, 6-4 in the women's final, and Rola outlasting Jarmere Jenkins of Virginia 7-6(8), 6-4 in the men's championship match.
Gibbs had swept the NCAA singles and doubles titles in 2012, adding a team title last week; Rola won the men's doubles title last year. Yet in spite of that experience, both were challenged in the finals, played outdoors in warm, humid and breezy conditions.
Gibbs got off to a quick start against Weatherholt, a No. 9 seed, who set new standards for her school with every win after the first round.
Up 4-0 before Weatherholt got on the board with a break, Gibbs was the steadier of the two players, although Weatherholt said her errors were not the result of nerves. Gibbs continued to pressure Weatherholt on serve, stepping three feet inside the baseline when she had a look at a second serve. Gibbs closed out the first set with her fourth break of Weatherholt in the set, but Weatherholt was far from discouraged.
The senior from Prairie Village, Kansas started the second set with a break and held her own serve for the first time in the match to take a 2-0 lead, beginning to eliminate her errors and attack the short balls Gibbs gave her. Gibbs used her slice to counteract Weatherholt's flat power, and continued to aggressively hit out as much as the wind allowed, especially on her returns. At 3-3 in the second set, Weatherholt was moving forward for a short ball from Gibbs and her knee buckled, the same knee she had had surgery on three times, most recently last September.
After treatment on the changeover, Weatherholt continued to play, but was not as confident in her movement. Gibbs however, couldn't maintain her focus, allowing Weatherholt to win the next game without actually hitting any winners.
"I let myself get a little carried away," Gibbs admitted. "It looked like she got really hurt when she first went down and I was a little concerned about her, to be honest. She's a really nice girl and a good competitor. So that next game, I was just hoping she would throw me some errors, and I wasn't really sticking to the game plan that I had been adhering to, and I got really tight that game."
Gibbs managed to regain her concentration, holding in the next game for a 5-4 lead, and after more taping of the knee at that changeover, Weatherholt served to stay in the match. Overcoming Gibbs is a difficult task in the best of conditions, and although she was able to save one match point, Weatherholt couldn't save the second and Gibbs had her second singles and fourth overall NCAA title.
"I just tried to fight through it," Weatherholt said of the knee injury. "I don't know what I did, it might be hyper-extended, I'm not really sure. It didn't make a difference in the match, she played really well. I didn't play my personal best, but part of that is she's a good player and was putting some pressure on me. I was trying to adjust, but I missed a few too many balls, and she came up with some good shots and good returns."
Hayden Perez, Nebraska's associate head coach, said he is optimistic about Weatherholt's knee.
"I don't think it's anything significant," said Perez, who is hoping to play mixed doubles with Weatherholt in an upcoming USTA National Open Playoffs event. "The trainer took a good look at it and there was a lot of stability there. It's one of those things were if you've had a knee that's broken down before, I think it's a little sensitive. I think she's going to be fine, and we're going to do some treatment here in a minute."
Although Perez admitted to a few tears after Weatherholt's last match as a Cornhusker, he recognized that sadness should be secondary.
"It's just been such an awesome experience, such a fun ride with her," said Perez, in his eighth year under coach Scott Jacobson. "I just have happy thoughts, and I know life's got great things in store for her."
While Weatherholt contemplates her future plans--she doesn't know if she'll try her hand at the Pro Circuit--Gibbs has also played her last match for her school, seeing no further mountains to scale in college tennis.
"I'm leaving the day after finals to go to Wimbledon qualies," said Gibbs, whose WTA ranking is 177. "I should only have to come back to finish my degree for one to two quarters. I'll play a pretty similar schedule as last year. The WTAs I'm planning to play, wild cards pending, are US Open, Stanford, Wimbledon and then probably a lot of challengers, just getting my feet wet and trying to get some wins out there on tour this summer. But it will really be dependent on my results and whether or not I get wild cards when I want them."
Rola knows his NCAA title will not provide him a US Open wild card, with the 6-foot-4 left-hander from Slovenia joking that he wished he was from the United States after he denied Jenkins both the triple crown (singles, doubles and team championships) and the US Open main draw wild card that has gone to the American NCAA champion the past four years.
"Unfortunately, I am not an American," Rola said with a laugh. "Right now I would like to be. No, I'm proud to be from the small country of Slovenia, I wouldn't change that. I knew what Jenkins had in mind going into this final, and I bet there was some more pressure on him than me. I'm just getting home with this title, and that's enough for me."
The first set between Rola and the third-seeded Jenkins was as close as the score would suggest, and although both players had break points, none were converted, with a good serve, a big forehand or a deft volley keeping the match on serve.
In the tiebreaker, Rola took a 6-2 lead, only to see Jenkins save one set point after another until at 8-7, it was Jenkins who had a set point. Rola's serve clipped the net cord, and threw off Jenkins, who sent his return a bit long. Rola then hit another good first serve, this one clean, followed by a difficult touch volley winner to get his sixth set point, which he converted when Jenkins double faulted.
"[Rola] got a little bit nervous at 6-2," said Ohio State head coach Ty Tucker. "He's up and he has an easy middle forehand and he tried to hit it a hundred miles an hour, and all of a sudden, the next thing you know, he's down a set point. But he rebounded. The guy's got guts for sure."
The 70-minute first set looked like it could be replicated, with both players holding for 3-3. Serving, Jenkins had four game points to take a 4-3 lead, but Rola needed only one break point, crushing a forehand putaway for the match's only break.
Two more holds of serve and Rola stepped to the line to serve out the match. He continued his aggressive and varied play, hitting a forehand winner and a volley winner for 30-0. Jenkins countered with a forehand winner of his own for 30-15. Another big forehand by Rola forced an error from Jenkins and Rola had two match points. He chose a spin serve for his first and got the short ball he wanted from the changeup, but hit a tight-looking forehand into the net for 40-30.
On his second match point, Rola swung his first serve out wide, and hearing no call, celebrated with raised arms. Jenkins was stunned, saying no, no, no, and strode to a place an inch or two outside the far sideline pointing to a mark, which he offered to show the chair umpire. The line umpire's call stood however, and Rola had earned Ohio State's first NCAA singles title.
"I couldn't see it," said Rola, who is tentatively planning on returning to Ohio State for his senior year. "If that's the mark, unfortunately the ball was out, but that's tennis. I feel sorry for him, but there's nothing you can do."
Jenkins, who spoke about the call after his doubles match later in the day, said he understood that bad calls were going to happen.
"It's tennis," said Jenkins. "You see it on even the highest levels, missed calls. Well, actually not if they have Hawkeye. But yeah, the serve was definitely out. There was a mark I went to as soon as Blaz hit the serve, but I don't know if it was too fast for the umpire to see. It's sports, and it happens all the time in college. Credit to him, he played a really good match, and I'll look forward to playing him later on the Pro Circuit."
Virginia coach Brian Boland was also philosophical about the point that ended the match.
"That's just part of sports," said Boland. "You get some calls that go your way and then others don't. We certainly had a call go our way [in the team final against UCLA]. It was one of those things, and he was able to move on."
With the chance to become only the fourth triple crown winner in college tennis and with a certain US Open wild card gone, Jenkins' state of mind for the doubles final was a concern, and that wasn't alleviated by the first few games of the men's championship match.
Jenkins and partner Mac Styslinger trailed Chris Camillone and David Holiner of Texas 3-0 in the opening set, but the rain, an ever-present threat the past week, arrived again, and the match was continued indoors with Texas leading 4-1. The unseeded Longhorn team managed to win that set, but Styslinger and Jenkins, the No. 4 seeds, found their form to post a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
In the third set, Styslinger lost his serve, giving the Texas team a momentary 3-2 lead, but Camillone was broken at love in the next game. Three more holds and Camillone was serving again, and he and Holiner fought off two match points before Styslinger's lethal returns eventually proved too much.
"This was my last match of the year in college and I might as well leave it all out on the court," said Styslinger, 19-year-old freshman from Birmingham, Alabama. "I started to feel it, not in the last game, but the game before that. I really started to feel both forehand and backhand returns, so I just trusted my shots."
Styslinger wasn't known as an especially adept doubles player in the juniors, but he credits the Virginia coaches and alumni for his improvement this year.
"It's just a tribute to the work the coaches do with me," said Styslinger, who helped Virginia earn its third NCAA men's doubles title in the past five years. "Andres (Pedroso), Scott (Brown) and of course Brian. There are a bunch of good doubles players that train in Charlottesville--Treat Huey, Dom Inglot--so they help out a ton, and that makes a huge difference."
Jenkins admitted disappointment over losing the singles, but was consoled by leaving Virginia with a team and doubles titles.
"Obviously I really wanted that singles title today," said Jenkins, from College Park, Georgia. "But to come back and get the doubles, that definitely makes me feel a lot better. But at this stage, it's more than just me. When I step on the court, especially in finals, that's really when you're representing your school. And not just my school, but my family, who are here, and friends watching online. So I just told myself to go out and do the right thing and represent my school well, because even though I'm done today, I'm setting an example for incoming recruits."
Camillone and Holiner, who were ranked 41st and had beaten the No. 1, 5 and 8 seeds en route to the final, couldn't help but appreciate their appearance in the final.
"If you told us from January up until today would you take this, or would you expect this, there's just no way," said Camillone, a senior from Austin, Texas. "It's not a lack of confidence, it's just how can you expect to make this sort of run given our positioning, given our ranking, given the fact we really didn't play together in the spring except for four matches. But it sucks to lose 4 in the third."
"We put it all out there and came up a little short today," said Holiner, a junior from Dallas.
While Jenkins didn't succeed in his quest for the triple crown, Southern Cal's Sabrina Santamaria and Kaitlyn Christian got theirs, becoming the first team in Division I women's collegiate tennis to sweep the ITA Riviera All-American, the ITA Indoor Intercollegiate and the NCAA tournament in the same academic year.
The No. 2 seeds, who lost only one match all year, to Stanford in the first round of the team tournament's Sweet 16, beat UCLA's Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton 6-4, 6-3 in a match played entirely outdoors.
Their unconventional style, with Santamaria glued to the baseline and Christian roaming the net, evolved naturally.
"It just flowed," said Santamaria, a sophomore from Los Angeles. "We just started playing doubles with each other my freshman year."
"We started the other way," said Christian, a junior from Orange. "But she has amazing groundstrokes and I'm good at the net, so it's just how things worked itself out."
When Santamaria served out the final point, she ran to Christian and jumped in her arms to celebrate the first NCAA women's doubles title in school history.
"I have a lot of respect for Skylar and Robin," said USC coach Richard Gallien. "They thumped us before, so it's not like it was any huge advantage. It was just who could control their nerves the best and get through some rough spots the best. We did that well today."
Christian and Santamaria are looking forward to competing in New York at the US Open, with the wild card into the main draw that traditionally goes to a team of two Americans.
And with their record, now the best ever in women's Division I, with four major titles (Gabriela Lastra of Stanford won four, but with different partners) the next level beckons.
"It feels great to be here with her and have the opportunity to keep playing at the US Open," said Christian. "We're really excited."
"I just feel blessed to have the best doubles partner in the world, the best doubles player in the country, by my side," said Santamaria. "She's amazing, and I'm blessed to be right next to her and to go to the US Open."
For complete results from the individual and team events, see the championship central page.