NCAA tennis: Electric atmosphere
URBANA — Spectators, coaches and players have raved about the setup at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
At the end of Monday’s men semifinals, it was clear to see why.
Moments after Virginia held off Georgia 4-1 to earn a place in its third straight national championship match, fans turned around, walked 10 feet and took in the end of UCLA’s thrilling 4-3 win against Ohio State.
Final attendance figures won’t be calculated until the end of the NCAA Championships, but turnouts like the ones Monday afternoon made a festive atmosphere.
For those fans not sitting in the chairback seats, they stood on the grass hilltops overlooking the 12 courts. Rows of fans were gathered there taking in the action and on the walkways in between the rows of seats.
“It’s unbelievable,” Virginia coach Brian Boland said. “There’s a lot of Orange and Blue, that’s for sure. We’ll take a few of the extra Illinois fans that still wear the Orange and Blue. We’ve always felt like we’ve had great fans, and we’re just happy they come out and support us.”
When Georgia’s Garrett Brasseaux held off Virginia’s Mac Styslinger to force a third set in what could have clinched the match, fans shifted to see Virginia’s Alex Domijan duel with Georgia’s Nathan Pasha. Domijan clinched the match with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory.
“It makes a big difference when you feel like you’re playing at home,” Boland said. “We’re so happy to be moving on.”
UCLA coach Billy Martin was pleased with the turnout.
“I think both were well-respected, rooting for their teams and not making snide remarks,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re at home schools, you’ll get that, but the NCAA committee is always doing a great job. They want to make sure it’s not derogatory. Good rooting for your team is what we want to see.”
✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰
Howard Joffe couldn’t get potential American recruits to answer his phone calls.
The Texas A&M women’s tennis coach shouldn’t have a problem now.
His squad will play in its first national title match after beating UCLA 4-3 on Monday night in the semifinals. The upstart Aggies will meet perennial power Stanford, a 16-time champion, at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The Cardinal held on for a 4-3 victory against two-time defending champion Florida in the other semifinal.
“I learned this in watching our football team at Texas A&M,” Joffe said. “None of the conjecture and hype is worth a (darn) thing. It’s always a performance-based sport. If we play better than Stanford, we’ll win the title. If they play better than us, then they will.”
Joffe, a South Africa native in his third year with the Aggies, has turned to international players to stock his title contender. Seven of the eight players he has are foreign-born.
“In the recruiting of international students, there’s a lot more work involved, but it was a case of the top American players just weren’t answering the phones,” Joffe said. “It’s awfully easy if you can get the best American kids, but when they don’t pick up the phone, I’ve gone for some international kids who have done a great job.”
Two came from Bolivia (twins Ines Deheza and Paula Deheza), two from Romania (Stefania Hristov and Cristina Stancu), and one apiece from Spain (Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar), China (Wen Sun) and Mexico (Nazari Urbina). Anna Mamalat is the only American, hailing from Philadelphia.
“Definitely in the past year or two, women’s tennis has come on really strong at A&M,” Joffe said. “I’ve known all along that we’ve had an awfully good team. If anyone else hasn’t figured that out yet, that’s their business.”
Ines Deheza closed out the match Monday night, beating Chanelle Van Nguyen 6-3, 6-7 (9), 6-4. Deheza trailed 4-2 in the third set before rallying to go ahead 5-4 and then won the last point while Van Nguyen battled cramps.
Joffe credited Van Nguyen for staying in the match until the last winner from Deheza.
“It’s an awful shame the way the match ended,” Joffe said. “It’s just a very, very cruel and unusual way for the match to end.”
✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰
Martin still hasn’t made it to Watseka.
He’s had a valid reason, though, trying to win the school’s 17th national championship.
Martin — who grew up in Illinois and whose grandparents are buried in the small Iroquois County town — said he still plans to visit while he’s nearby.
“I can’t wait to get up to Watseka,” he said. “That’s where my dad was born, and I spent a lot of summers in the cornfield. It’s where I learned how to shoot my first shotgun. I thought I might sneak away after the first round or two, but I’ll have to go after the individual (championships are done) now.”
Martin had a strong support system in attendance Monday, from family members to high school friends.
UCLA is back in the title match for the first time since 2005, which had Martin at the helm. He’ll go after his second at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’s a special time in my life,” Martin said. “It’s really gone full circle.”
UCLA fended off the Buckeyes — who suffered their first loss of the outdoor season Monday — when Peter Kobelt double-faulted to give Marcos Giron a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 victory. Kobelt had to be picked up by his teammates after the match while the Bruins celebrated.
“I’ll take it any way I can get it,” Martin said. “It’s not bittersweet, to be very honest. It keeps us moving on to reaching our potential goals. I’ll take it and not think twice about it.”
✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰
The heavy wind gusts prevalent in East Central Illinois were out in force Monday afternoon.
“It was the same for both teams,” Boland said. “No excuses from that standpoint. It was incredibly gusty out here, but it was a hard-fought match on both sides.”
Play was never halted, even if it meant seeing some players hit high-arching shots that looked a lot like fly balls hit on a baseball field.
UCLA took the doubles point from Ohio State, and the wind played a key aspect with that, Martin said.
“They played bad doubles,” Martin said. “The winds really threw them off, but they regrouped, came out and put that behind them. They were right there to win the match, and a couple shots here or there, and it would be us out.”
✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰
Jim Tressler is a visible figure at the championships.
He’s the director of the Atkins Tennis Center.
He’s also the father of a state-bound high school tennis player.
Travis Tressler, a junior at St. Thomas More, qualified for the state meet last Saturday by placing fourth in singles at the Danville Sectional.
Father wasn’t able to venture west on Interstate 74 to see his son in person. He was kept updated, though, via text message about his son’s progress.
“I was kept abreast pretty good,” the elder Tressler said with a laugh. “I was excited for him. He’s worked hard the last year, and I think he used his experience throughout the year to get through that match.”
Jim Tressler will have to again stay connected on Thursday when his son starts play at the state meet. He’s staying in Champaign-Urbana to help with the NCAA Championships.
“I’m sure it might be tough (not being there), but the NCAAs is a big thing,” Jim Tressler said. “He understands, for sure, and he’s great about that. He knows it’s a big deal for me and the athletic department. I’ll do my best Thursday, and I’ll be able to see him next year for sure.”
✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰
While the men’s and women’s team finals wrap up Tuesday, six more days of tennis still will take place at Illinois.
The singles start Wednesday, with doubles play to follow Thursday. The singles field is comprised of 64 players on both the men’s and women’s side, while 32 men’s doubles teams and 32 women’s doubles teams will vie for a championship. The doubles and singles finals will wrap up on Memorial Day.
One person, among many, here for the duration is D.J. Gurule, the tournament’s committee chair and women’s tennis coach at Gonzaga.
“I grew up in Montana,” Gurule said. “I feel like with the people here are very similar. They’re down to earth, friendly, accommodating and hardworking. It’s been very nice so far.”