Schedule a training visit to the prestigious Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, MD by clicking on the banner above

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Champaign Dreams Become Reality for Peyton Stearns of Texas and Ben Shelton of Florida in NCAA Division I Singles Championships; Roland Garros Junior Championships Begin Sunday with 12 Americans in Action

©Colette Lewis 2022--
Champaign IL--

Neither of them are old enough to drink any of the bubbly beverage associated with celebrations, but Peyton Stearns of Texas and Ben Shelton of Florida forever toast the city of Champaign, the site of their triumphs in the NCAA Division I Championships.

Stearns leaves the University of Illinois campus with two trophies; the 20-year-old sophomore from Mason Ohio had no hangover after leading her team to the NCAA Team title last Sunday, and after nine straight days of competition emerged with the singles championship trophy, defeating Stanford's Connie Ma 6-3, 6-2.

After a challenging ten days of rain and strong winds, Saturday's finals were played in ideal condition: sunny skies, temperatures in the 70s, and light winds.

Four of the first five games went to deciding points in the no-ad format used in Division I tennis, and Stearns won three of them. She couldn't shake Ma however until she powered a forehand return winner for 5-3 lead. Stearns then closed out the set, fittingly, with a good first serve on a deciding point.

"In my mind, I know this one point can change the whole match," said Stearns, the No. 2 seed. "I had to win or lose it, but not give her any free points on the massive deuce points. I said, Peyton, this one point gives you one less game you'll need to win. Save your body, you're going to need it."

Stearns admitted that she was nervous to start the match, and sensed that the unseeded Ma, a freshman, was also feeling uncomfortable. 

"She makes a lot of balls, and today she wasn't," Stearns said. "I'm a big hitter, and I wasn't hitting as many big shots to get her on defense as I would have liked. I think it was very stress-y tennis from both of us and what got me through today was that I was able to flip the switch on a couple of points, the big points, and it gave me a little bit of leeway to go after it."

Ma struggled with her serve throughout, with uncharacteristic double faults keeping her from building any momentum, while Stearns took advantage of the opportunities she was given.

"I need to be a little more aggressive," said Ma, who returns to Palo Alto for the final few days of classes before final exams. "If my average ball can do a little more damage, and I can get some short balls, that will make a big difference. Today I didn't hit the most clean, gave her a couple of short balls, and her forehand is obviously lethal when it comes to short balls. But props to her."

Ma had come from 4-1 down in the second set in her 6-4, 6-4 semifinal win over North Carolina's Fiona Crawley Friday, so the 4-1 deficit she faced in the second set wasn't as daunting as it may have seemed. But when Stearns held on a deciding point for a 5-1 lead, any thoughts of a turnaround evaporated.

Serving for the match at 5-2, Stearns ramped up her power game, hitting three winners, including a backhand pass that delivered the first NCAA Division I women's singles championship in Texas's history.

"It's pretty cool making history," said Stearns, who is the first woman since Stanford's Nicole Gibbs to win both the singles and team titles in the same year, with Gibbs' double also coming in Champaign, in 2013. "Hopefully it's setting the standard for more to come at Texas, doing the same thing with more team and individual titles."

Stearns, who won the team title last year playing No. 1 as a freshman, said she will make her decision about returning to Texas or turning pro in the next week or two, long before she'll be playing in the US Open as a wild card recipient.

"I'm so excited to be playing in the main draw of a slam," said Stearns, currently 384 in the WTA rankings. "That's a dream come true. Last year, I was fortunate to play in my home town Cincy with a wild card in qualies and I got a wild card into the qualies at the Open, and now, making main draw is just insane to think about. If you would have told me last September, October, when I was in a boot, that I was going to win this, I would have been like pfft, no way, I can't even hit a tennis ball. So I'm just super happy, super proud of myself for pushing through last fall and this spring."

While Stearns was playing for a main draw US Open wild card for the first time, Shelton had already been in that situation last summer, when he reached the final of the USTA National 18s championships in Kalamazoo, falling to Zachary Svajda in straight sets. So his 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 6 seed August Holmgren of San Diego was especially significant as he assessed the growth in his game since.

"I think when you see great players who are breaking through and making it as professionals, they're not making semis or finals of tournaments, but they're winning them, week after week," said the 19-year-old left-hander from Gainesville. "It's one of the toughest things to do after having a great week, finishing it off with a victory. I'm really happy I was able to close here, get past whatever physical and mental things that I was feeling and being able to come up with what I needed."

Shelton started off the match slowly, but he didn't attribute his discomfort to nerves, but rather to Holmgren's play.

"He surprised me; he did some things I didn't expect him to do," said Shelton, who had beaten Holmgren 6-3, 6-4 for the ITA All-American Championships title last October. "His ball was coming a little bit more through and faster than I expected and it took a little bit of time to adjust. But once I got some emotion behind it, and my coaches gave me a kick in the butt and got me releasing some of my energy, moving my feet more, that's what helped me a lot."

Shelton came back from 0-40 down at 3-all in the first, but lost a deciding point when he hit a forehand wide, and Holmgren hit several excellent first serves to close out the set.

Shelton had to win a deciding point to hold in the opening game of the second set, but his level began to increase with each game, and with his serve more damaging, he closed out the second set with little drama.

Holmgren came out for the third set determined, telling his coach Ryan Keckley "I refuse to lose this match," in his opening service game, but a great return from Shelton put the Gator in front to stay, with the depth on his ground strokes keeping Holmgren from setting up for his forehand. A second break made it 5-2, and Shelton closed out the fourth Florida men's NCAA singles title and the second in a row, as last year's champion Sam Riffice watched and supported his teammate from the bleachers next to the court.

"Ben played lights out," said Holmgren, a 24-year-old from Denmark, who will graduate from San Diego Sunday with a degree in theatre. "He was hitting his spots, his forehand was massive, his serve was huge and he did a really good job of when I was attacking him of neutralizing it, especially in the third set, when he gave me very few unforced errors."

Keckley said the San Diego program will miss Holmgren, who has completed his fifth year of eligibility and will begin playing professional events this summer.

"He certainly left our program better than he found it," Keckley said. "From his daily efforts, to how professional he was with the guys and how much he enjoyed the team concept, which is really undervalued in this day and age. It's going to be a huge hit to the program, but we'll get back to work."

Shelton, currently 548 in the ATP rankings, has a wild card into the ATP Challenger 100 in Little Rock, which begins Monday, but his participation in that tournament and in the US Open this August does not preclude a return to Florida for his junior year.

"My plans are to come back," said Shelton, who returned to Gainesville Saturday afternoon on the University of Florida's private jet to repack his bags before heading to Little Rock. "I hope to play a lot of pro tournaments this summer, and we'll see what happens, but right now I have no plans to leave, I'm still a Gator. I've got time."

Florida head coach Bryan Shelton also expects his son to return for the 2022-23 season.

"He's having an amazing experience at Florida," said Shelton, who reached 55 in the ATP rankings in 1992. "It's more than just the tennis, it's the academics, the social part, which he loves, the balance of all that. Professional tennis is awesome and it's amazing, but there's a lot things that go along with that as well. We value education, we value teamwork, we value the things he's receiving at the University of Florida. To see his progression from a year ago to this year, the jump he's made, we won't look too far into the future, but he's committed to coming back to school and continuing to be a big part of college tennis."

The ten-day tournament concluded Saturday afternoon with the North Carolina State women and the Texas men claiming the doubles championships.

Top seeds Jaeda Daniel and Nell Miller had already made history by reaching the final as the first team in program history to do so; after a 6-2, 7-5 victory over the unseeded Miami team of Daevenia Achong and Eden Richardson, the 2018 NCAA doubles champion playing for LSU, they are now the program's first NCAA champions.

Daniel, a graduate student from Pennsylvania, and Miller, a senior from England, had their share of tough matches during the week, but came through them all.

"All the tough matches we've had to get to the final have really prepared us for that time when we knew, ok, everything's on the line here," Daniel said. "We handled it the way we know how and it's really about being together in that moment."

Miller, who joined the Wolfpack in January after transferring from Texas Tech, said the path to the title was occasionally a rocky one.

"It's just been phenomenal, no matter what happens, we've always been there, ups and downs, and we've had a few downs," Miller said. "We've had some rough matches, but no matter what, we got back on that court and everything we've done leading up to this has really helped."

"It's hard to put into words," Daniel said of their historic first for the NC State program. "It's so exciting and it's nice to see the work and the time and the struggle pay off at some point, and I feel like that's how this tournament has been for us."

Miller plans to return to NC State for her fifth year, while Daniel will begin playing on the professional circuit.

Six championships were on the line during the 10-day tournament, and the University of Texas collected half of them, with the women's team and singles and finally, the men's doubles, won by Cleeve Harper and Richard Ciamarra.

Harper and Ciamarra, the No. 3 seeds, defeated No. 2 seeds Robert Cash and Matej Vocel 5-7, 6-4, 10-7 to spoil the Buckeyes attempt to collect all three collegiate majors in a season.

Harper, a redshirt sophomore, and Ciamarra, a graduate student, said that Stearns and the women's team inspired them during their run to the title.

"We just tried to do our part on the men's side," said Harper, from Alberta Canada. "Luckily we were able to get it done today."

"Peyton's unbelievable, what a player," said Ciamarra, a Connecticut resident who transferred from Notre Dame for this season. "I'm so happy for her, for the women to get the championship back-to-back. All around a good year for Texas tennis."

Harper and Ciamarra started slowly in the match tiebreaker, going down 3-0 before taking six of the next seven points. Ohio State, down a mini-break, got it back for 7-7, but Harper and Ciamarra won the final three points to claim the title. The point that ended it was a long tense one, concluding with Ciamarra's blistering forehand winner up the middle.

"In a 10-point breaker, it's anyone's game, so you have to bring the energy," Harper said. "We do that well and we were able to come out on top. All year he's just been cracking forehands and I knew it was going to be a good one. I was just trying to scrap out some balls to get him a good shot there and luckily I was able to."

Harper and Ciamarra are the first men's doubles champions at Texas since Lloyd Glasspool and Søren Hess-Olesen won the title in 2015.

Links to the draws can be found at the University of Illinois tournament page.

The junior championships at Roland Garros begin Sunday in Paris, with eight US boys and seven US girls in the draw. Twelve play their first round matches Sunday:  Bruno Kuzuhara[1], Alex Michelsen, Michael Zheng, Victor Lilov[12], Cooper Williams, Nicholas Godsick, Sonya Macavei[Q], Mia Slama, Liv Hovde[6], Qavia Lopez[15], Alexis Blokhina and Kaitlin Quevedo[Q].   

Nishesh Basavareddy[5], Ozan Colak and Ahmani Guichard[SE] are not on Sunday's schedule.

Australian Open girls champion Petra Marcinko is the No. 1 seed in the girls draw. Australian Open boys champion Kuzuhara is the No. 1 seed in the boys draw.

The order of play is for Sunday is here.  The ITF preview article is here.


College Fan said...

Congrats to Ben and Bryan! Hopefully, Ben makes on the court in NYC this year. Colette,
Remember Ben tested positive in New York last year, right before he was supposed to play. Ended up having to rent a car a drive back to Gainesville. What a great two years for the Shelton family! Very deserving.