John Roddick was a happy man. As he walked onto Midtown Athletic Club's court 5 to congratulate his University of Oklahoma players for winning the 2015 ITA Division I National Men’s Indoor Championship – the first national title in the team’s history – he couldn’t suppress a huge smile. Six years ago, he arrived in Norman to try to lift a program that was well outside the Top 20 (albeit with a sparkling new facility) to new heights. So far, he’s accomplished just that.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Roddick. “These things are years and years in the making as far as effort goes and trying to do things right, and guys working hard and having good attitudes. It seems like a long time to get here, so when you do, you have to enjoy it.”
Many college tennis aficionados were doubtful that the #2-ranked Sooners could pull off the upset against the top-ranked University of Southern California, which beat Oklahoma to win last spring’s NCAA championship. Given their opponent’s strength throughout the line-up and experience in winning championships (5 of the last 6 NCAAs as well as the 2012 National Indoors), the Sooners’ prospects seemed marginal, at best.
Yet when sophomore Alex Ghilea (#63) broke junior Max de Vroome (who clinched last year’s NCAA title) to win #5 singles 6-3 4-6 6-3, it became clear that depth was now a strength for Oklahoma, and experience in winning was quickly becoming one as well.
This was the second consecutive day that Ghilea provided the winning margin for Oklahoma. The Romanian, described as “the Machine” by captain Dane Webb and “Beast Mode” by Roddick, also clinched the semifinal against Baylor with a dramatic victory.
Ghilea was also a hero at #3 doubles, where he and fellow Romanian sophomore Florin Bragusi staved off four match points to help record one of the more improbable doubles comebacks in recent memory.
Southern Cal got off to a great start in doubles. Its #2 team of de Vroome and Eric Johnson breezed to a 6-1 win over Andrew Harris and Spencer Papa. Its #1 team of Yannick Hanfmann and Roberto Quiroz (also the #1-ranked team in the country) got a tough hold from 0-30 to go up 5-3* against Webb and Axel Alvarez; while at 3, Nick Crystal and Connor Farren overcame an early break to lead 5-2*. But then Southern Cal got tight.
Or, in the words of head coach Peter Smith, “We choked.”
“You can sugarcoat it all you want. We got tight. That’s life – that’s sports. In the end, that’s what makes sports so great. Winning’s great and losing sucks.”
After an Oklahoma hold, Crystal served for the match at 5-3*, 40-0. But on the team’s first match point, Crystal double faulted. Three points later, on deciding point, he double faulted again. In all, Oklahoma won 11 points in a row starting with the first match point, and ultimately broke for 6*-5. Southern Cal reached break point in the final game at 30-40 but the Sooners held their ground to even the doubles point at 1-1.
While that was going on, Hanfmann and Quiroz were able to reach two match points of their own at 5*-4, 40-30 on Hanfmann’s serve. However, a huge backhand return by Webb took it to deciding point and a netted approach volley from Hanfmann got Southern Cal back to 5-5. “We played a nails return game there,” said Webb.
Alvarez and Quiroz traded holds to take it to a tiebreak. There, two double faults helped put the Trojans in a hole and a netted return from Hanfmann gave Oklahoma four match points. Southern Cal saved two of them but on the third, Alvarez hit a forehand return winner to put Oklahoma up 1-0 with a huge amount of momentum.
“Having the doubles point was huge, because it gives you a little margin for error,” said Roddick.
Oklahoma rode that momentum to huge leads on several courts. At 3 singles, #31 Webb won the first 7 games of his match with huge serving and multiple winners off both the forehand and backhand sides. He would be the first off court, beating #20 Jonny Wang 6-0, 6-4 to give Oklahoma a 2-0 lead. Webb, who finished the tournament 3-0 (his match against North Carolina’s Brett Clark was suspended with Webb leading 3-0 in the third set), sprinted over to court 4 to watch freshman Papa.
Papa was playing well, but was unfortunate to have to face unranked Eric Johnson, who had perhaps the best individual tournament in Chicago, going 4-0 in singles (losing only 19 games in 8 sets) and 3-0 in doubles with de Vroome (one match was not completed). Johnson won 6-4, 6-1 to bring Southern Cal to within 2-1. According to Smith, Johnson “really showed his leadership and his improvement. He’s a kid who’s really done all the right things for four years, and to watch him play like that – it’s very gratifying.”
Over on the other side of the divided courts, Alvarez had won the first set over Quiroz 7-3 in a tiebreak. With associate head coach Bo Hodge watching on, Alvarez won the big points in the second set, twice holding at 30 and twice breaking at 30 to go up 5*-3. Five points later, Alvarez held giving Oklahoma a 3-1 lead.
The three remaining matches had all entered a third set by then. On court 1, #26-ranked sophomore Harris had rolled his ankle in the second set and had to get attention from the trainer. He double faulted on deciding point in the first game of the third set to give hope to the Trojans. However, he was able to regain his movement and fought back to tie the set at 2-2. (His match would eventually end up tied at 4-4 once Ghilea secured the victory.)
On court 6, Crystal completed an impressive comeback, winning the second set 6-0 over Jose Salazar and overcoming an early break in the third, winning 5 of the last 7 games of the match, including 3 on deciding points. His 3-6, 6-0, 6-4 win pulled Southern Cal to 3-2.
On 5, Ghilea – definitely the streakiest player of the tournament - had been up 5-0 in the first set and survived a three-game streak from de Vroome to win the first set 6-3. De Vroome, a big serving Dutchman, went up 3-0* in the second set, and held on to win 6-4, with the last four games all going to the returner.
The final set was a tight affair that saw some drama involving the two head coaches. Ghilea struck first, breaking de Vroome on a deciding point and then holding for 3-1*. The next game, Ghilea grabbed a quick 0-30 lead but de Vroome got it to a deciding point, whereupon he hit an ace for 2-3*. The two traded holds in the next three service games. At one point toward the end, Ghilea called a close ball out and Smith came on court to argue the call, at one point sarcastically telling Ghilea “good call.” Roddick objected to that turn of events, but in the end both coaches kept their cool. Finally, Ghilea secured the break at 5-3* to clinch the University of Oklahoma’s maiden national team title.
Ghilea’s match point was a deciding point, fitting in that the no-ad format used has been a controversial one. All told there were 28 such points in 15 singles sets. In the 5 completed matches, the winning player won 18 of 25 deciding points. The player who benefited most from winning deciding points was Crystal, who won 8 of 9 (including 3 of 3 in the final set). Ghilea won 5 of his 7 deciding points. Overall, Southern Cal won 17 of 28 deciding points in singles, while Oklahoma won 4 of 5 doubles deciding points.
Smith noted that “it took us awhile to shake it off [losing the doubles point] but we really started fighting. But in the end, Oklahoma played great, and all the credit goes to them.” Smith continued, “We’re a better team today than we were four days ago.”
Associate head coach Hodge, in his fourth year at Oklahoma, said, “It feels great. As a player, I was in a couple of finals and semis, and never won the national indoors championship. We told them to play big, play aggressive, and go down swinging.”
The win was particularly meaningful for Webb. “I like these courts a lot. Just feeling confident and feeling relaxed. Feeling confident in my teammates – that they’re going to do well, so that helps me. I’ve been getting off to good starts, helping the team out with a quick win is always nice, especially against a tough team.”
Webb continued, “If I serve really well, which I did today, I’m in the match regardless of how everything else is going. It frees me up on the return so I can go for it. So that was big for me today. Another big thing is keeping my space. I’m kind of long so I was trying to keep him from being able to come at me all the time and take it super early, so I kept it pretty heavy and moved the ball around well. I’m pretty proud of my effort.”
When asked what the championship meant for him as a senior, the 22-year-old Texan said, “When I first got to Oklahoma, our goals were a little bit different than they are now. We weren’t ranked quite as high; we had talent but we had holes in some areas. But now, I feel proud to be a part of this team. I feel like I’ve helped build this program, with the coaches and the guys. I was really the first American to go. It feels really good. We’ve got a lot of work to do in the season. We want to be playing our best tennis in May. But obviously we’re really excited to have this win. It’s crazy. It’s so fun to make history for our school and our program.”
“Dane was one of my early, early recruits,” noted Roddick. “To kind of go through what we’ve gone through, together….” Roddick didn’t continue, but the sentiment was clear.
For Harris, who was on the losing end against de Vroome in the deciding match of the 2014 NCAA team championships, the outcome in the rematch was especially sweet.
"We were very upset after that NCAA final," said the 20-year-old from Australia. "So yeah, getting revenge was really special."
As for what the title means for his program, Roddick said, “It’s massive. I haven’t checked my phone but it’s blowing up. Just to say that we’re national champions, indoors, just to put those two words together is a huge thing for any program. Especially ours, coming from where we’re coming from. To know that we belong – and not only do we belong but we can win these kinds of tournaments, whether it’s a conference tournament, national indoors, or hopefully in the future an NCAA championship.”
For complete results of the weekend's matches, see the ITA tournament page. Additional photos can be found at Kelley's On The Rise Facebook page.
The records of all 16 teams:
Ohio State 1-2
North Carolina 1-2
Penn State 0-3
Men’s Team Indoor Championships Final
Feb 16, 2015
1. #7 Yannick Hanfmann (USC) vs. #26 Andrew Harris (OKLA) 4-6, 6-4, 4-4, unfinished
2. #11 Axel Alvarez (OKLA) def. #24 Roberto Quiroz (USC) 7-6(3), 6-2
3. #31 Dane Webb (OKLA) def. #20 Jonny Wang (USC) 6-0, 6-4
4. Eric Johnson (USC) def. Spencer Papa (OKLA) 6-4, 6-1
5. #63 Alex Ghilea (OKLA) def. Max de Vroome (USC) 6-3, 4-6, 6-3
6. #49 Nick Crystal (USC) def. Jose Salazar (OKLA) 3-6, 6-0, 6-4
1. #5 Axel Alvarez/Dane Webb (OKLA) def. #1 Yannick Hanfmann/Roberto Quiroz (USC) 7-6(4)
2. #38 Max de Vroome/Eric Johnson (USC) def. Spencer Papa/Andrew Harris (OKLA) 6-1
3. Florin Bragusi/Alex Ghilea (OKLA) def. Nick Crystal/Connor Farren (USC) 7-5
Order of finish: Doubles (2,3,1); Singles (3,4,2,6,5