©Colette Lewis 2013--
The Central Illinois weather gods answered the prayers of everyone involved in the NCAA Division I Team Tournament, with no rain delays in the six days of competition. But on the opening day of the singles competition Wednesday, the often-forecast rain finally emerged, with play stopped, and moved indoor on two separate occasions.
Top women's seed Lauren Embree of Florida and top men's seed Mikelis Libietis of Tennessee both saw their dreams of an NCAA singles title evaporate inside the Atkins Tennis Center, with Embree losing to Jacqueline Cako of Arizona State 6-3, 6-2 and Libietis falling to Mitchell Frank of Virginia 6-2, 6-1.
Embree and Cako, ranked 21st, began their match under cloudy skies at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Center, with Cako taking the first set 6-3. Embree, who had lost to Nicole Gibbs of Stanford 6-0, 6-1 in the Team Championship semifinals, was down a break at 3-2 in the second set, but was working her way back into the match, with the games getting much tougher for Cako to win as the match went on. A shower, brief but heavy, interrupted the match around noon and because they were at 3-2 in the second set, Embree and Cako were one of the six matches sent indoors.
It proved the right move for the Cako, who won the next three games, and got her revenge for her 6-2, 6-3 loss to Embree in the first round of the ITA Riviera All-American last October.
"I definitely wanted to beat her after All-Americans," said Cako, a senior. "That's probably why I didn't get seeded this year, because I didn't do well at All-Americans. I don't play the fall season except for All-Americans, and I drew Lauren there. A tough draw."
Cako, who grew up in the Seattle area, said she is comfortable indoors, but hasn't played inside much during her career at Arizona State. Against Embree, Cako felt she could win if she stuck to her game plan.
"I felt like I played really well and I came out and executed my game plan really well. She wasn't doing much to hurt me, and I just attacked her," Cako said.
After her disappointing loss to Gibbs in the semifinals, ending the Gators run at a third consecutive championship, Embree was looking to close out her outstanding career at Florida with a good run in the individual tournament, which she can still do in the doubles championship, but there's no doubt her results the past three days stung the two-time Team Championship Most Outstanding Player.
"I thought Lauren played with a little bit of pressure, trying to win this tournament, while Jackie played freely and outplayed us," said Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist. "I feel bad for Lauren. She had hopes to win another team title and perhaps give it a run here in the individual championships, but it wasn't meant to be. She's greatly disappointed now, I'm sure, but when she gets away and thinks back on her career, I'm sure she'll be very proud, as we all are."
Thornqvist knows Embree's graduation leaves a huge hole in the Florida lineup.
"It goes way beyond the winning," said Thornqvist. "It's the way she prepares, practices, trains, it's lifted the whole boat for four years. People ask all the time how do you replace a player like that--you just don't. You have to, over time, hope that her footprint lives on, that everyone will continue to learn to train and act like she has. Hopefully we can get some good players next year that can pick up some of the slack, but you just can't replace a player like that."
Tennessee's Libietis was a question mark for the individual championships after he rolled his ankle in the quarterfinals against Tennessee last Saturday, but there was no structural damage, so the sophomore from Latvia took the court Wednesday afternoon against Virginia's title clincher Frank.
After the tense and emotionally draining 4-3 win over UCLA, Frank handled all the media interview requests, text messages and social media obligations, but didn't have time for much celebration.
"I was dealing most of the night with texts and Twitter and Facebook, making sure I responded to each person," said Frank, who won the two fall majors in 2011 as a freshman, but was injured throughout the 2012 fall season. "I've never had 70 text messages on my phone before. And Boland had like 700, so I can only imagine what he was going through."
Frank and Libietis also started outdoors, with Frank taking the first set easily, and Libietis showing few signs of hampered movement. Another brief shower, this one accompanied by a double rainbow, sent the match indoors, and while that would have appeared to be an advantage Libietis, who has a big serve, Frank continued to dominate despite the change in conditions.
"Deep down I was pretty upset that we had to go indoors," Frank admitted. "I felt like he was kind of losing it a little bit. But luckily I returned well indoors--he didn't serve his best today at all, I think he served a lot better against Jarmere (Jenkins), when he played him in the team match--so I was happy to get a couple of breaks indoors. I was nervous coming back in, because this guy has a huge game and you never know what's going to happen."
Despite his resume, which now includes an NCAA team title as well as the ITA All-American and the USTA/ITA Indoor Intercollegiate Championships, Frank, who was the No. 2 seed in last year's NCAA singles tournament, felt this was a big win for him.
"He's obviously earned his No. 1 ranking," said Frank. "This is a very good win for me. He's No. 1 for a reason. He's obviously done unbelievably this season. To be seeded No. 1 in the NCAAs is a tough thing to do, he's obviously been super consistent, so I'm happy to get the win."
Although Frank was able to overcome the well documented championship hangover, his teammate, No. 2 seed Alex Domijan, was not. Domijan fell to South Carolina's Tsvetan Mihov 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.
"I had nothing to lose," said Mihov, a junior from Bulgaria. "I was trusting my shots and my coach, and that helped me in the big moments in the match, especially in the third set."
Mihov made very few errors and handled Domijan's pace with little difficulty. Mihov acknowledged that his strength and concentration late in the match may have been partly due to Virginia's deep run in the team championships.
"Domijan played a lot of matches during this week," said Mihov. "They were tough matches. Congratulations to him and his team, it was a big time win, but I thought it would be easier for me because he had tough matches."
The only one of the two top seeds in the men's and women's draw to survive the first day was women's No. 2 Sabrina Santamaria of Southern Cal, who played under the lights on the north courts after the second rain delay and collected a 6-3, 6-2 win over Texas A&M's Nazari Urbina.
Defending champion Nicole Gibbs of Stanford, a 9-16 seed, was also still on the courts late into the evening, finishing her tough 7-5, 6-4 victory over the hard-hitting Yang Pang of Arkansas after 10 p.m.
In addition to Embree, three other seeds fell on the women's side, with Sofie Oyen of Florida, a 9 seed, losing to Stefanie Tan of TCU 6-3, 6-4, Danielle Lao of Southern Cal, a 9 seed, falling to Breaunna Addison of Texas 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, and No. 8 seed and USTA/ITA Indoor Intercollegiate finalist Anett Schutting of Cal dropping a 7-5, 6-3 decision to Natalie Beazant of Rice.
The men lost even more seeded players than the women Wednesday, with half of the top eight seeds already eliminated.
No. 6 seed Emilo Gomez of Southern Cal lost to Jarryd Botha of Alabama 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5 and No. 5 seed Romain Bogaerts of Mississippi State lost to UCLA's Marcos Giron under the lights 6-4, 7-6(2), and Nik Scholtz of Ole Miss, a No. 9 seed, fell to Clifford Marsland of Tulsa 6-1, 6-4.
The second round of singles and first round of doubles is scheduled for Thursday.
The complete results and draws can be found at the tournament central page.