Commentary

Gators, Trojans reach tennis summit

Originally Published: May 27, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Florida women's tennis coach Roland Thornqvist attempted to subtly use the term "underdog" to his team's advantage in the NCAA finals. His counterpart with the Southern Cal men's team, Peter Smith, sort of took the opposite approach.

Both ended up celebrating with their teams Tuesday at Stanford's Taube Tennis Center, winning NCAA championships in dramatic fashion. The men's and women's finals were televised back-to-back live on ESPNU, and each went down to the three-set matches that were the last on court.

[+] EnlargePeter Smith
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDaniel Nguyen celebrates with coach Peter Smith, left, after USC's third straight men's tennis title.

You couldn't have asked for more compelling finishes to either tournament, as both ended with the No. 1 overall seed being upset.

Southern Cal, which had taken the last two NCAA titles heading into the final, extended the heartbreak for Virginia with a 4-3 victory clinched by Daniel Nguyen's 7-5, 0-6, 6-4 win over Sanam Singh.

The Cavaliers were the No. 1 seed in the men's tournament for the fourth season in a row, and entered the final undefeated. But Virginia fell into a 3-0 hole after Steve Johnson, who'd earlier earned the doubles point with partner Emilio Gomez, beat Michael Shabaz at No. 1 singles.

However, the Cavs rallied and tied the score with three singles victories. It came down to the No. 3 singles match, with all eyes on Nguyen and Singh battling to decide the championship.

After Nguyen put away the winning volley, the crestfallen Cavs were left wondering what it will take to finally win that program's first NCAA team title. And the Trojans dogpiled Nguyen in a genuinely thrilled celebration that would make you think the program had never won before.

In fact, it was USC's 19th NCAA title, the most of any men's tennis program. The Trojans won the very first men's collegiate team tennis championship, back in 1946.

"I'll tear up talking about; it's really just that special," Smith said of the Trojans' reaction to their three-peat. "I've had two starters that have been on all three teams -- Steve Johnson and Daniel Nguyen -- and they've won big matches each year. And you saw those two were the most emotional.

"We are very fortunate to have those kind of people. To sustain success is very difficult, because people can get spoiled by it. But I actually think it's made us hungrier."

Technically, the Trojans were the underdogs, seeding-wise. But that's not the mentality that USC ever has as a program.

Smith played at Long Beach State, where he graduated in 1987. Shortly after, he became head coach at his alma mater when he was just 23. Smith was successful there and at subsequent stays at Fresno State and Pepperdine. But he said he still had a lot to learn when he took over at USC for the 2003 season.

"I think I was kind of brash when I came here, because I thought it would be easy to be successful at USC," Smith said. "At first, I didn't get that I needed a different type of player, and I needed to coach them differently to be at the very top of the sport.

"My fourth year, we didn't make the [NCAA] tournament, and I realized I needed to recruit guys who were used to winning championships on the junior level. But helping them deal with the pressure and expectations at USC. When you win a national title here, people say, 'Well, you are supposed to win.'"

Speaking of which, that's what's usually said about Stanford's women's program, which leads the way with 16 NCAA titles. Considering the Cardinal were the top seed and were playing at home, where they had won 184 consecutive team matches since 1999, they seemed a prohibitive favorite for another championship.

And it appeared virtually a done deal when the Cardinal went up 3-1 on Tuesday. But the Gators, who lost the title to Stanford last year at Georgia, had a huge rally in them.

"Yes, it looked pretty bad for us, I'm not going to deny it," Thornqvist said. "But we had said going in that we would embrace being the underdog for the first time in a long time in a match. I think we played as well in doubles as we have all year.

"But then just like in last year's finals, Stanford really took it to us in singles. The first hour of singles play, I thought they used the crowd exceptionally well and gained momentum from it. We had to climb out of a pretty deep hole."

[+] EnlargeFlorida Tennis
AP Photo/Paul SakumaLauren Embree helped Florida earn its fifth NCAA women's tennis title.

This is how deep: Florida sophomore Lauren Embree was down 4-0 in the third set of her No. 2 singles meeting with Mallory Burdette; it was the match that would decide the championship.

Embree, who hasn't lost this season, refused to do so. She fought back, winning the match in a tiebreaker that gave the Florida women's tennis program its fifth NCAA title.

It's the second for Thornqvist, a native of Sweden who previously coached at Kansas and his alma mater, North Carolina, before taking over at Gainesville, Fla., for the 2002 season.

"We were careful to not bring up last year, because half the team this year is freshmen, so they didn't know what that was about," Thornqvist said. "We didn't want to start this journey putting something negative in their heads. And I didn't feel I had to say anything to the returning players, because the memory of that loss was very vivid for them."

The USC men and Florida women both enjoyed their championships Tuesday night, but then it was time to get back to work again. The NCAA singles and doubles championships are ongoing at Stanford, with both concluding Monday.

Missed it by that much

• For Stanford, the tennis loss was another not-quite-enough result this academic year in women's athletics. Certainly, most schools would be greatly overachieving to even get as far as the Cardinal has in several sports. But since it's Stanford, a school that prides itself on stockpiling NCAA championship trophies, the standards are skyscraper-high.

• Last December, the Cardinal women's soccer team was undefeated (23-0-2) and a No. 1 seed going into the NCAA final with No. 4 seed Notre Dame. But the Irish won 1-0, keeping the Cardinal from winning the school's first women's soccer national championship.

• A week later, the Stanford women's volleyball program -- which has won six national championships and was the overall No. 3 seed in the 2010 NCAA tournament -- lost a five-set marathon to Pac-10 rival Southern Cal in the Elite Eight.

• In women's basketball, No. 1 seed Stanford advanced to its fourth consecutive Final Four, but lost in the semifinals to No. 2 seed Texas A&M.

However, Stanford did win the NCAA championship in water polo, defeating archrival Cal 9-5 in the May 15 final.

Stanford will be competing in the NCAA rowing championships Friday through Sunday at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center. The Cardinal won the NCAA women's rowing team title in 2009.

And the Cardinal softball team is the No. 15 seed and faces No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Friday in an NCAA super regional.

Women's lacrosse: Favorites or first-timers?

Will Maryland win its 11th NCAA title? Will Northwestern win its sixth? Or will either Duke or North Carolina get its first?

The women's lacrosse championship will be decided at Stony Brook, N.Y., this weekend, with the semifinals Friday -- Maryland faces Duke, Northwestern meets North Carolina -- and the final Sunday.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.