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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Alabama's Planinsek and Miami's Noel Fight Back to Claim NCAA Singles Titles; Ohio State Men and Georgia Women Win Match Tiebreakers to Capture Doubles Championships; Grant and Bigun Advance to ITF J500 Milan Singles Finals

©Colette Lewis 2024--
Stillwater Oklahoma--

Unseeded Filip Planinsek of Alabama delivered a first NCAA singles title for the Crimson Tide, while No. 8 seed Alexa Noel continued an impressive tradition for the Miami women in the NCAA Division I singles finals on hot and sunny Saturday at the Greenwood Tennis Center.

Both needed to shake off the determined efforts of their opponents and the loss of a first set to prevail, with Planinsek defeating Michael Zheng of Columbia 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-2 and Noel ending the Cinderella story of ninth alternate Anastasiia Lopata of Georgia 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.

Planinsek, a junior from Slovenia, wasn't discouraged when he failed to convert three set points with Zheng serving at 4-5, 15-40, and held his nerve to come back from 30-40 down in the next game, with two good first serves. Clutch serving has been Planinsek's trademark since he first assumed the role of American slayer with a second round win over Ohio State's No. 9 seed Cannon Kingsley, but it was Zheng who came up with the big serve at 6-4 in the first set tiebreaker to take the lead.

"I came back in the first set, started playing better and just always felt that I can prevail in this match," said Planinsek, competing in the first NCAA men's singles final between unseeded players since the current format was introduced in 1978. "I always knew I had one more gear left."

Planinsek thought he detected an energy gap, with Zheng having played four consecutive three-setters, coming from a set down in three of them.

"I kind of noticed that he was pretty tired," said Planinsek, who beat four seeded Americans before encountering the unseeded Zheng. "I work hard in the off season with a strength and conditioning coach, I feel super strong, and I could go play another set now."

Zheng acknowledged that Planinsek had been the more aggressive player, despite the loss of the first set.

"I was a little bit lucky to get that first set; I saved three set points at 4-5, and in the second and third he just raised his level," said the sophomore from New Jersey, the first Ivy League player to reach an NCAA singles final since Harvard's James Blake in 1998, and the first Columbia man to do it in the modern era. "He started stepping into the court more, and his forehand really got going in the second and third."

Planinsek, who dropped serve just once in the final, approached the next set with an increased commitment to using his forehand, which led to a impressive number of winners from that side early in rallies.

"I broke quite early in the second set and the momentum started building and building, my game was being more aggressive," said Planinsek, who had an ITF junior ranking outside the Top 200 when entered his freshman season at Alabama. "We have a saying at the beginning of tournaments, 'stay greedy'. Every time I get the break I want more, I want more. So I stayed greedy, I knew he was struggling at the end, and I broke him so I didn't have to serve it out."

Zheng played Japan's Kei Nishikori in an ATP Challenger final and won a round in the US Open qualifying, so he is familiar with the level of those competing as professionals. Asked how Planinsek's level compared today, Zheng put it in the same category.

"I thought it was pretty similar to those players up there in the rankings, top 200," Zheng said. "If he continues playing like this, I'm sure he's going to go through the rankings pretty quickly."

Planinsek is planning to head back to Slovenia, also the home country of 2013 NCAA singles champion Blaz Rola of Ohio State, for some rest, before playing in the ATP Challengers he now has access to through the ITA and ATP Accelerator program. But making a specific number continues to be a secondary goal.

"I'm not thinking too much about rankings, I'm just thinking about my game," said Planinsek, who saved four match points in his 7-5, 5-7, 7-6(6) semifinal win over Ozan Baris of Michigan State. "My game's important, it comes first and then if I play aggressive, if I serve good, if I enjoy myself, the ranking will come."

Planinsek knew he had the level to win the event once he defeated Kingsley to earn All-American status for the first time, with his 2022 win over current ATP No. 15 Ben Shelton of Florida, who went on to win the NCAA title that year, providing a glimpse of what might be in store for him with time and experience.

"I've beat a lot of good players in my college career," Planinsek said. "But I was never consistent. This tournament I was consistent, I was super focused, I was determined, I was doing the same thing every single day, recovery, we ate at the same place every single day. I got so tired of this sandwich, but I think it helped."

Head coach George Husack, in his 12th year leading the Crimson Tide, attributed Planinsek's improvement over the past three years to his attitude.

"During the course of the past three years and certainly this week, he's learned to how to execute under a lot of pressure," Husack said. "He's learned how to continue doing the same things, as boring as it may be, and he's been willing to do all these things...he's put a lot of work into himself. He's matured, but he hasn't reached anything, there's no mountain top. So we're going to keep pushing him, because he's got a lot longer to go."

One place Planinsek is not going is back to the sandwich shop. As he made his way toward the parking lot, he said was contemplating a steak for dinner.

The women's final was expected to be a lengthy affair, but when Lopata took a 6-4, 3-1 lead, her improbable appearance in the final appeared to be heading to an even more unlikely title.
That's when Noel made her move, getting the break back on a deciding point and holding for 3-all. She continued to negotiate the pressurized position of serving from behind, with the 21-year-old from New Jersey breaking at 5-all and holding to send the final to a third set.

"At 3-1, I thought, this could go one of two ways, and I picked the hard way, but the better way," said Noel, who earned her degree at Miami this spring, but has a year of eligibility remaining after redshirting due to injury. "I started to play tennis that makes me a little more uncomfortable than what I typically do. I started to step in a little bit more, take the ball a little bit earlier, change the pace of the rally and the rhythm. I stayed mentally tough, present, and believed that if this was going to go three sets, I can outlast anybody in the country, and at that point I played on faith and trust in Paige."

Miami's head coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, who has now coached three NCAA women's singles champions, guided and encouraged Noel on nearly every point, never doubting that she could turn the match around.

"I wasn't really too concerned with her ability to flip the match," said Yaroshuk-Tews, who was on court for Audra Cohen's 2007 title and Estela Perez Somaribba's 2019 title. "But flipping a match between an opponent like that isn't easy to do...I told her, if this is going to come down to work and resiliency, my money's on you. A lot of credit to Anastasiia. She's a great player, coming off a great tournament and a great season, super tough to play, and we did incredible."

After Georgia reached the team final last Sunday, Lopata, who played at line 4 for the Bulldogs, was competing for the ninth straight day, and her run through the event, which included wins over pre-tournament favorites Fiona Crawley[5] of North Carolina in the second round and Amelia Rajecki[2] of NC State in the semifinals. That effort was bound to take a toll, and while her patience and strategic placement never deserted her, a few more errors crept in, and when a she sent a deep, looping ball long on a deciding point serving at 2-4 in the third set, Noel prepared to serve for the title. 

She didn't get to match point, with Lopata breaking at 30-40, and Noel admitted doubts intensified as the match passed the three-hour mark.

"When I got that double break, that added pressure," said Noel, who lost in the finals of the ITA All-American Championships in 2021, when she played for Iowa, and in 2023 as a Hurricane. "I felt relieved, but it almost added pressure to do some special on my service game and I did the opposite, I played a little tentative. There were doubts for sure, doubts throughout the entire match, throughout the entire tournament, but we work hard to minimize those, we can't let those doubts define who we are and I'm not going to let those doubts define how I'm going to play tennis."

As an American champion, Noel is expected to receive a US Open wild card, and she is thrilled at the possibility to return to a slam, after reaching the Wimbledon girls final in 2019.

"It's crazy to think I have an opportunity like that in a few short months," Noel said. "That's something I've been dreaming about since I was a kid...I'm here for a reason, this is exactly what I wanted and we're going to keep pushing through. This is not the end, this is hopefully the start, and right now I'm just pumped."

Lopata, the lowest ranked woman to ever reach an NCAA singles final, declined to participate in a post-match press conference, but provided this statement:

"I left everything I had today on court. I’m happy that I was able to make it this far. Of course I wish I could have won one more, but this was an experience I will never forget.”

Georgia head coach Drake Bernstein was effusive in his praise of the 19-year-old from Ukraine, who is only able to return to visit her mother in Kiev for short periods of time due to the country's invasion by Russia. 

"I’m so proud of Nastya and her performances this week. To do what she did after making the NCAA team final is nothing short of incredible. This has certainly been a tournament we will never forget and will head back to Athens proud of our effort here in Stillwater.”

Georgia is also heading back to Athens with a championship trophy after unseeded Dasha Vidmanova and Aysegul Mert saved a match point in their 7-6(4), 2-6, 11-9 victory over top seeds Savannah Broadus and Janice Tjen of Pepperdine.

An extremely close match tiebreaker provided both teams with match points; Tjen and Broadus took at 9-8 lead to earn theirs, but Broadus's forehand return of a Vidmanova serve hit the tape and went wide. Vidmanova held to earn Georgia's first match point, and Vidmanova's return produced a short ball that she put away with a forehand, delivering Georgia's first NCAA women's doubles title in six trips to the final.

"I didn't know it was the first one, but obviously it means a lot," said Vidmanova, a junior from the Czech Republic. "The opportunity to play for Georgia in any way we can, it's a big honor and I'm really happy we could do it."

Vidmanova and Mert both said first-year associate head coach Jarryd Chaplin was instrumental in the title.

"He was a big addition, and he literally taught us how to play doubles," Vidmanova said. "With the help of Chaps, we improved a lot, knew what we were doing on the court."

Mert, a freshman from Turkey, echoed those sentiments. 

"I don't think anyone knows how much time he spends with us, teaching doubles to us," Mert said. "He kept on coaching us, even in the times when we were not doing well and I'm grateful for the experience."

Mert felt the sting of the team loss, and was determined to avoid it a second time.

"Losing in the team finals, I told myself when I'm back on the final stage again, I'll do anything not to be in that losing situation," Mert said. "So when we were down today, I kept thinking about that moment, and did everything I could to be on the winners side again."

As with the men's singles champion, the men's doubles champions saved match points in the semifinals en route to the title, with JJ Tracy and Robert Cash of Ohio State delivering a second straight title for the Buckeyes with a 5-7, 6-0, 10-5 win over Antoine Cornut-Chauvinc and Joshua Dous Karpenschif of Florida State.

Tracy and Cash, who had saved two match points at 9-7 in their semifinal with Louisville's Etienne Donnet and Natan Rodrigues, were ready as they headed into another one Saturday afternoon with a title on the line.

"I thought about yesterday, we lost the second set and were in a tiebreaker so we were tested, and I was very confident in ourselves," said Cash, a fifth year senior from Ohio, who lost in the 2022 doubles final with Matej Vocel as his partner. "I thought about two years, losing in the breaker and I definitely didn't want to go out that way again. I was really excited, sitting on the bench before the tiebreaker, to play a 10-minute tiebreaker for everything."

With James Trotter and Andrew Lutschaunig winning last year's title, another championship comes as no surprise to Tracy.

"We practice doubles so much, and we have a system that everyone loves to play," said Tracy, a senior from Ohio. "No matter how good a volleyer you are coming in, you turn into a great volleyer at Ohio State by the time you leave."

"We work so hard at doubles, we know how important the doubles point is," Cash said. "Don't be surprised to see two more Buckeyes back here in the final because those guys are so good and Ty (head coach Tucker) and Kro(associate head coach Justin Kronauge) are so good. We're going to keep producing the best doubles teams and doing what Buckeyes do."

As an American pair, Cash and Tracy can expect to receive a US Open doubles wild card as the first all-US team since Keegan Smith and Maxime Cressy of UCLA in 2019 to win the title.

"I'm definitely interested in playing the US Open with JJ, and having fun doing it," Cash said. "I'm excited to continue my tennis career this summer and just have fun with it." 

"It's amazing that we'll get an opportunity like that to compete at the US Open," said Tracy, who will begin his professional career this summer. "In terms of my career, it will give me a great look at what that huge stage looks like, so when I get there, I'll be more prepared."

At the ITF J500 in Milan, Kaylan Bigun and Tyra Grant will play for the prestigious Trofeo Bonfiglioi singles titles, while Cooper Woestendick and Maxwell Exsted will compete for the doubles title.

Bigun, seeded No. 6, defeated No. 16 seed Mees Rottgering of the Netherlands 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 and will play No. 8  seed Jangjun Kim of Korea, who upset top seed Nicolai Budkov Kjaer 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-2.

No. 2 seed Grant defeated close friend and doubles partner Iva Jovic, the No. 14 seed,  6-3, 1-6, 6-1 and will play top seed Emerson Jones of Australia. Grant beat Jones on clay last spring, but Jones took both their meetings in Australia this year.

Australian Open doubles champions and No. 2 seeds Cooper Woestendick and Maxwell Exsted will face unseeded Hayden Jones of Australia and Charlie Robertson of Great Britain in the boys doubles final Sunday.