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Thursday, May 23, 2024

NCAA D-I Team Championships Recap; Five Americans Advance to NCAA Singles Semifinals; Ninth Alternate Lopata Reaches Final Four; Chicago Women Claim First NCAA D-III Title; Grant, Jovic and Bigun Advance to Quarterfinals at ITF J500 Milan

©Colette Lewis 2024--

Stillwater OK--

First time champions are the theme of my NCAA Division I Team Championships recap, up today at the Tennis Recruiting Network, and that trend in continuing in the singles championships, with all four of the men's semifinalists the first from their programs to ever reach the Final Four.

It's also been a stellar tournament for players from the United States, with five American men and two American women through to Friday's semifinals of the NCAA Division I Tennis Championships, after taking a variety of paths to victory Thursday on the courts of the Michael and Anne Greenwood Tennis Center.

Unseeded Colton Smith of Arizona earned the most dramatic win, coming from 4-2 down in the third set to defeat No. 9 seed Murphy Cassone, a 2023 semifinalist, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(3) in one of three all-US men's quarterfinals.

Smith again had the support of the Arizona women's softball team, in Stillwater for Super Regional competition this weekend, but unlike yesterday, their presence seemed to less benefical to the junior from Washington. They saw Smith close out the first set, and take a 2-0 lead in the second, but then the wheels came off. After being denied entrance to the facility with the signs they had made to support Smith, the team was warned by the chair umpire for their comments to Cassone and their "Bear Down" gestures, and once they went quiet, Smith proceeded to lose six games and the set.

"I wasn't aware of what they were doing or what was happening, but I know the ref was getting upset at some things," Smith said. "It was unfortunate that it transpired the way it did, but I mean, it's college tennis. When you're in a dual match, people are doing that stuff all the time and I don't think it's any different here. It's disappointing it went down how it did and there where some things that changed the match around a little bit, but I don't think it affected me too, too much and I was able to get back on track there."

The softball team left before the conclusion, missing the best stretch of Smith's performance, when he broke Cassone serving at 4-2 and held from behind to force the deciding tiebreaker. Two winners, one a monster down-the-line backhand and the second on the forehand side, seemed to rattle Cassone, who made two backhand errors to go down 5-0. Although Smith was unable to get a first serve in, he executed well on his second and took a 6-0 lead. A couple of errors gave Cassone hope, but the junior from Kansas gave Smith a generous call on the baseline on the fourth match point and Smith was through.

"It was kind of clear that I had to change some things around and really commit to what I wanted to do in that third set," Smith said. "You're aware you need to raise the level (in the tiebreaker); it's seven points and you have to get it now or you ain't going to get it. I had to trust what I had done to get to that point."

Smith is on somthing of a revenge tour in this event, having posted three wins over players who beat him the last time they played a completed match: No. 6 seed Oliver Tarvet of San Diego, No. 9 seed Nishesh Basavareddy of Stanford and today, Cassone.

Smith is hoping to make it four in a row when he takes on unseeded Michael Zheng of Columbia, who beat him 6-4, 6-1 at line 1 in the Wildcats 4-3 loss to the Lions in the Super Regional earlier this month.

Zheng came back to beat JJ Tracy of Ohio State 2-6, 7-5, 6-3, with Tracy reduced to underhand serves and frequent drop shots after he began cramping in the third set, up 3-2. He received a medical timeout then, which comes with a point penalty in men's college tennis, and he was broken in the next game. When Zheng held on a deciding point to go up 5-3, the die was cast, and he closed out his first match point with a forehand winner with Tracy serving at 30-40.

"Whenever your opponent is cramping or injured, it's never easy to put the match away," said Zheng, a sophomore from New Jersey, who reached the round of 16 last year. "I was just trying to focus on what I could control. I got a little bit tight at the end, missing some balls I don't usually miss, but credit to JJ, he toughed it out and finished the match."

As for meeting Smith again, Zheng said surprises will be few.  "The first set was very close, I was a little bit lucky to get the first, I saved a lot of break points," Zheng said. "I kind of got it going in the second, but he's a tough player, well coached, so they'll make some adjustments and I'll be ready for that."

No. 8 seed Ozan Baris of Michigan State won the most straightforward match in the men's quarterfinals, beating unseeded Jack Anthrop of Ohio State 6-4, 6-1.

"For most of the match I played very well," said the sophomore from Michigan. "There were times when I got a little too passive, didn't exactly play the way I intended to, but other than that I played great."

The first player from Michigan State to reach an NCAA semifinal, Baris was confident coming into the tournament.

"I came in knowing that I can win the whole thing, and as long as I have that chance, I'm very confident when I go out there," Baris said. "It doesn't mean it's going to happen....but I believe in myself to the fullest, every time I step on court. I've had that mentality for every match and I'm going to keep it until the end of the tournament."

Baris will face the only international player remaining in the field after the round of 16: Filip Planinsek of Alabama. Planinsek,  just the second quarterfinalist in the NCAAs, with Mazen Osama, is now the first semifinalist in program history, beating Harvard freshman Cooper Williams, a No. 9 seed, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4.

"I don't know what's happening, I'm just playing my best tennis right now, I guess," said the junior from Slovenia, who has defeating three seeds in succession to advance to the semifinals.  "I'm enjoying myself so much in Stillwater, I'm in love with this place I guess. But jokes aside, it was a great match, great battle. Cooper's a great guy, a great competitor, a freshman, has a lot in front of him. But I just don't want to stop, I just want to keep winning."

Both the men's singles semifinals are scheduled to begin at 10:00 Central time Friday.

Unlike the men's draw, which lost top seed Johannus Monday of Tennessee to injury before the event began and No. 2 seed Eliot Spizzirri of Texas in the first round, the women's field still has its top two seeds in contention.

Mary Stoiana of Texas A&M is trying to add a singles title to the team title she won Sunday, and the junior from Connecticut is one step closer after a tight 7-5, 6-4, win over unseeded Amelia Honer of UC-Santa Barbara.

"I thought she was a really talented player," Stoiana said. "We'd never played, she's in a totally different conference with me, but she's an amazing player. I was in a battle there and she made me work for every point, very few unforced errors and we complemented each other with the cat and mouse game. She can slice really well, played good drop shots, good volleys, a little bit like myself, so it was a really fun, entertaining match."

Stoiana will face No. 8 seed Alexa Noel from Miami, who defeated unseeded Alexandra Yepifanova of Stanford in the other all-US quarterfinal in the top half 6-2, 6-3. 

Noel, who has not had the best of luck or health in the NCAA individual championships, was happy with her level of play.

"I think I played really well today, the first set was everything I wanted it to be," said the recent graduate, who still has a year of eligibility remaining. "I went up early in the second set and she fought harder, as any good competitor does, but I stayed with it to kind of pull away at 3-all, and I'm super happy to get through."

Noel and Stoiana have played twice this season, with Stoiana winning the ITA All-American championships with a 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-1 victory over Noel last fall, and Noel beating Stoiana 6-2, 6-7(3), 6-3 in a February dual match in Coral Gables.

On the international side of the draw, No. 2 seed Amelia Rajecki of North Carolina State defeated Georgia's Dasha Vidmanova, a No. 9 seed, 7-6(5), 6-2 to reach her second straight NCAA singles semifinal. It's not the same however, according to the senior from Great Britain.

"I think it's different because I haven't played 15 matches before," said Rajecki, who played in the team final last year, while the Wolfpack was eliminated in the Super Regionals this year at Stanford. "I feel a little fresher than last year, mentally. Last year, I was so tired at this point. I was also surprised, every match I was just glad to play again. Obviously this time it's a bit different,  because the match could be the last match of my college career. It does feel different, there's a finite end to it, but I'm really enjoying this year and feel I have a more to give as well."

The surprise finalist is Georgia sophomore Anastasiia Lopata, the ninth alternate in singles playing No. 4 for the Bulldogs throughout the season. In a match well over three hours in duration, Lopata survived the big hitting and serving of No. 9 seed Celia-Belle Mohr of Vanderbilt, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.

Lopata looked and sounded tired in her press conference, but there was never a doubt that she would give her best in her seventh straight day of top level Division I competition.

"I was just telling myself keep fighting, fight, I don't know that helps I guess," said Lopata, from Kiev Ukraine. "That's all I told myself, all that was in my head."

Lopata saved two break points to hold for 5-4 and put the pressure on Mohr, who was unable to summon her usually effective serve in the final game, double faulting twice and missing a forehand volley to send Lopata to the semifinals.

With all the tennis she has played, Lopata cited the recovery method she has used during the past eight days.

"I'm going to do our special secret thing that recovers our legs, that nobody knows about," Lopata said. "I'm going to work on the part of my body that hurts, ice, heat and some compression. We've really found the thing that helps us recover our legs, so it's good, it's not that sore."

The doubles semifinals are also set for Friday, after the women's singles semifinals, which are not before 11:30 central.

The top seeds in the women's draw, Pepperdine's Savannah Broadus and Janice Tjen, defeated the defending NCAA champions Fiona Crawley and Carson Tanguilig of North Carolina 6-2, 6-2 and will face Tennessee's Sofia Cabezas and Elza Tomase, who ended the Triple Crown hopes of Stoiana with a 6-3, 6-2 win over her and partner Mia Kupres, the No. 4 seeds.

Georgia's Aysegul Mert and Vidmanova will play Mohr and Anessa Lee of Vanderbilt in the other semifinals, after they took out No. 2 seeds and local favorites Anastasiia Komar and Ange Oby Kajuru of Oklahoma State 7-6(4), 4-6, 10-7. Mert and Vidmanova beat No. 5 seeds Metka Komac and Avelina Sayfetdinova of Texas Tech 3-6, 6-4, 11-9.

JJ Tracy managed to recover from his cramps in the singles quarterfinal in the three hours before doubles, and he and Robert Cash looked in top form in a 6-3, 6-1 win over the Arkansas team of Bozo Borun and Jared Horwood. Tracy and Cash, the No. 4 seeds, will play Etienne Donnet and Natan Rodrigues of Louisville, the No. 5 seeds, who beat top seeds Pedro Rodenas and Garrett Johns of Duke 6-4, 6-7(0), 10-7. 

2023 finalists Cleeve Harper and Eliot Spizzirri of Texas, 6-3, 6-3 winners over Mississippi State's Petar Jovanovic and Benito Sanchez Martinez will face Florida State's Antoine Cornut-Chauvinc and Joshua Dous Karpenschif, who beat Cassone and Jacob Bullard of Arizona State 7-6(5), 4-6, 10-6.

Cracked Racquets will have coverage of Friday's semifinals via ESPN+. Live scoring is here and draws are here.

The University of Chicago women, finalists the last two years in the Division III team championships, earned their first title in program history today in St. Louis, beating Wesleyan 5-3. For the bracket and replay, see ncaa.com. Tennis Recruiting Network will have a recap in the next day or two.

The Chicago men will face Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the men's final Friday.

Three Americans are through to the quarterfinals of the ITF J500 Trofeo Bonfiglio in Milan: No. 6 seed Kaylan Bigun, No. 2 seed Tyra Grant and No. 14 seed Iva Jovic. Jovic and Grant will meet in the semifinals if both win Friday. 


MD said...

Great coverage as always, Collette.