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Friday, May 27, 2022

Shelton's Good Fortune Sends Him to NCAA D-I Singles Final Against Holmgren; Ma and Stearns Meet for Women's Title Saturday; Macavei and Quevedo Qualify for Roland Garros Junior Championships

©Colette Lewis 2022--
Champaign IL--

Florida head coach Bryan Shelton suggested it might be divine intervention, and those inside the Atkins tennis center who saw the shot in question would confirm the accuracy of that description. Shelton's son, Ben, the top seed in the NCAA Division I singles championships, was serving at 5-all in the third set in his 6-7(3), 6-3, 7-5 semifinal victory over Tennessee's Adam Walton, the No. 3 seed.

After Walton had hit a perfect lob to earn the deciding point, Shelton, determined to be aggressive with the game on the line, slipped as he approached the net. With Walton's return coming at him, Shelton managed to get his racquet on it as he sat on the court, and an improbable drop shot winner was the result.

"One thing my coaches wanted me to do, when it came down to a deuce point, was to be the first guy to the net, be aggressive," said the 19-year-old sophomore. "I saw his chip was going to be too low to get the ball out of the air, so I tried to put on the brakes, so I could hit a forehand. I completely slipped, my feet came out from under me and as I'm sitting on the ground, and the ball's coming in slow motion to me, I thought there was only one chance of me winning this point, if I hit a drop shot winner. So for the first time in the match, I tried a drop shot and it goes in. My dad gave me a look, like what are you doing?, but somehow I was able to pull it out."

Shelton had trailed 4-2 in the final set, but got the break back on a deciding point to make it 4-4. After two easy holds, Shelton's shot gave him the advantage, and although he showed no signs of losing his composure, Walton was obviously shaken as he served to get into a tiebreaker. The fifth-year graduate student from Australia, who had given Shelton virtually no free points throughout the match, hit a backhand long to go down 0-30 and double faulted for 0-40, giving Shelton four match points. Walton saved two, both with winners, but he was the victim of bad luck on the third, when Shelton's forehand caught the tape and went over the net, giving Walton no chance to return it.

"I saw the opening there, with my forehand down the line, and I thought I had it," Shelton said. "I just didn't get all of it and it ended up touching the net cord. Adam's such a class act, he's such a good guy, so I was sad it went down like that. It was a great battle all the way through and he's an amazing competitor."

Shelton will face San Diego's August Holmgren, the No. 6 seed, who defeated defending champion and Shelton's teammate Sam Riffice 6-7(3), 6-4, 6-2.

Holmgren couldn't match Riffice's level in the tiebreaker, with a double fault and an unforced forehand error the difference in the first set, but he broke Riffice on a deciding point at 3-all in the second set and won his next two service games with ease to level the match at a set apiece.

Another early break in the third set gave Holmgren some breathing room, and when he won a net exchange on a deciding point with Riffice serving at 1-3, the likelihood of an all-Florida final dimmed.

Holmgren did show a few signs of nerves serving it out, missing two forehands to send the game to a deciding point, but he closed out the match with a putaway into the open court to become the first San Diego player to reach the men's NCAA singles final since Pierrick Ysern finished as runner-up in 2005.

Holmgren, although obviously not accustomed to indoor tennis, thought his serve was the key to his success against Riffice.

"I played very disciplined, served big," said the 24-year-old from Denmark. "Especially playing indoors, that's the most important shot to be able to be the first one to attack. I was hitting my spots really well. Sam's obviously an incredible player, but I knew if I could play the points the way I wanted to, control them with my forehand, take my chances when I see them, then I'd have a good shot at winning."

Riffice agreed that Holmgren benefitted from the move indoors due to rain Friday morning.

"I think he played a lot better than I did," Riffice said. "His game's pretty well suited for indoors and he played really good serve plus one tennis. Unfortunately, I didn't serve great, so he had a lot of looks on return and I didn't have as much on his, so he just kind of brought it to me today, played a little more aggressive than I did."

Riffice received his degree this spring, and is not planning to return for a fifth year; instead he will begin his professional career.

"I'll start this summer and see what I can do in the next couple of years," said the 23-year-old, who recently became engaged to former WTA professional Cici Bellis.

Holmgren and Shelton met in the final of last October's ITA All-American Championships, with Shelton taking a 6-3, 6-4 decision. 

"In Tulsa, he did a really good job of neutralizing my attacks," said Holmgren, who won the ITA National Fall Championships singles title the following month. "I made a little too many unforced errors and he served really well that day too. He was tough to break and made it difficult in my service games."

Shelton is planning to get a scouting report from Riffice before Saturday's match.

"I'm going to look at tomorrow as a whole new challenge," Shelton said. "I'm going to ask Sam for some pointers, and I'm sad it doesn't get to be two Gators in the finals, but I'm excited for another opportunity, and I'm taking it as a new day and a new match, not thinking too much about what happened last time."

As for the US Open main draw wild card that traditionally goes to an American winner of the NCAA singles title, Shelton is downplaying that aspect of Saturday's final.

"I'm not thinking about that too much," said Shelton, who also played for a US Open wild card last summer in the Kalamazoo 18s final. "I'm trying to compartmentalize, the college season is the college season and next week the pro season can start. I think the more you think about what you get, or don't get from winning or losing a match, the tighter you play, the more stress you put on yourself. The guy that I'm playing isn't American, so he's not thinking about that at all, so why should I?"

Unlike the men's final, the women's championship match will feature two players who know the other is thinking about the US Open wild card, with both Connie Ma of Stanford and Peyton Stearns of Texas from the United States.

Stearns, the No. 2 seed, earned her spot in the second final of her trip to Illinois, with the team championship already secured, defeating unseeded Paola Diaz-Delgado of Virginia Commonwealth 6-3, 6-4.

Stearns, a sophomore from Ohio, got the only break she needed early in the first set and closed it out comfortably. Diaz-Delgado settled herself in the second set, and was up 4-3, with Stearns serving at 15-40. But Stearns saved those three break points, then broke on a deciding point in the next game to give herself a chance to serve for the match. Again, she fell behind 15-40, but again she recovered, using three big forehands to take the game and the match.

"I took it point by point and I played smart," said Stearns, who is attempting to be the first woman from Texas to win an NCAA singles title. "I said, you know what, if I'm going to lose the point, she's going to have to earn it. I'm not going to give away the points for free and that's exactly what I did. In the end, I was like, how clutch are you here? please, just be smart, and I was, and I'm super happy about it."

Stearns admitted that she has given some thought to the US Open wild card.

"Earlier this week, in some of the other matches, it was definitely on my mind and made me play tight, knowing what was on the line, knowing how big it is to play at the Open," the 20-year-old right-hander said. "But I told myself to play it like I would any other match; if it goes your way, it goes your way, if it doesn't, it doesn't."

Stearns has lost just two matches all year, one to Emma Navarro in the team quarterfinals last week, and the other, back in February, to Ma, by a score of 7-6(7), 2-6, 6-2.

"We played early this season, at Stanford," Stearns said. "I lost in three. She's a good player, she's consistent, she's going to get a lot of balls back. I'll have to be very, very patient, wait to pick the right targets. When I played her last time, mentally I wasn't in it and that's what lost me the match. Tomorrow I'll have to be mentally prepared to play every single point the same way."

Ma trailed North Carolina's Fiona Crawley by two breaks at 4-1 in the second set, but when she got one break back to make it 4-2, she saw a path to closing out her 6-4, 6-4 victory.

"I was kind of mentally getting ready for a third, but once I got that break for 2-4, I thought yeah, maybe," said the 18-year-old freshman from California. "She was just playing unbelievable tennis up until 4-1 and I was like wow, it definitely won't be an easy match. But yeah, I'm glad I was able to pull through."

Ma, who had a small cheering section with head coach Lele Forood and teammates Sara Choy and Valencia Xu taking the red-eye Thursday night to support her, also admitted to thinking about the wild card.

"Yeah, I've thought about it, but I don't think that's what I'm playing this tournament for," Ma said. "I'd rather just represent Stanford. I'm not totally set on the wild card. If I get it, that's great, but if I don't, it's fine."

The last Stanford woman to win an NCAA singles title did so in Champaign, with Nicole Gibbs taking her second straight NCAA singles title.

"Lele told me Nicole Gibbs had won here in 2013, so maybe there's good luck here," Ma said. "There's a plaque in her office with all the people who won the individuals. That would definitely be cool to be on there, but I'll have to fight Peyton for it."

Unlike the singles semifinals, which were played entirely indoors, the doubles semifinals enjoyed some outdoor play. The men's semifinals began outdoors, but rain moved them inside during the first sets, while the women's semifinals were played entirely outside, with a brisk wind and temperatures around 60 degrees. 

No. 2 seeds Robert Cash and Matej Vocel of Ohio State trailed unseeded Daniel Rodrigues and Connor Thomson of South Carolina 4-1 when play was moved indoors, with the Buckeyes winning the next four games to take the first set. Rodrigues and Thomson got the only break of the second set, with Cash serving at 5-6, and took an 8-5 lead in the match tiebreaker by making six consecutive first serves, most of them unreturned.

Cash held both of his serves for 8-7, then Rodrigues missed a first serve, with the Buckeyes taking the point. They took the lead with Vocel's volley winner down the middle and ended it with a booming ace by Vocel for a 6-4, 5-7, 10-8 victory.

Cash and Vocel, who won both ITA fall majors as a team, will look to match former Buckeyes Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola as the only men's college teams to win all three titles in the same academic year. Buchanan and Rola achieved that in 2011-2012.

Cash and Vocel will face No. 3 seed Richard Ciamarra and Cleeve Harper of Texas, who ended the run of twin brothers Maxence and Charles Bertimon of Virginia Commonwealth 6-4, 6-3.

The women's doubles final will feature top seeds Jaeda Daniel and Nell Miller of North Carolina State and unseeded Daevenia Achong and Eden Richardson of Miami after they posted straight-sets victories Friday evening.

Daniel and Miller came from 4-1 down in the second set to defeat Janice Tjen and Savannah Broadus of Pepperdine 7-5, 6-4 and earn the program's first berth in an NCAA doubles final. Achong and Richardson defeated Lisa Marie Rioux and Ayumi Miyamoto of Oklahoma State 7-6(5), 6-2, and are the first Miami women's team to make an NCAA final since 1988.

The schedule for Saturday begins with the singles finals at 11 am CDT, followed by the doubles finals. TennisONE's Hayley Carter, Mark Bey and Alex Gruskin will provide commentary for all four matches. Links to live scoring and streaming are available at the University of Illinois tournament page.

The weather forecast is for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the 70s with no rain expected.

Qualifying is complete for the Roland Garros Junior Championships, which begin Sunday in Paris. Two girls from the United States qualified: Sonya Macavei and Kaitlin Quevedo. Quevedo defeated No. 1 qualifying seed Anastasiya Lopata of Ukraine 6-4, 6-2, Macavei defeated French wild card Thessy Ntondele Zinga 6-4, 7-5.

Six US boys were in qualifying: Alexander Frusina, Ethan Quinn, Jonah Braswell, Yannick Rahman, Leanid Boika and Aidan Kim. Quinn, Braswell and Kim lost in the final round of qualifying.