I feel like I've been punched in the gut.
Virginia almost pulled off a comeback for the ages this afternoon in the championship match of the NCAA Men's Tennis tournament, but fell just short of the first national championship in school history, losing to Southern Cal, 4-3. It was Virginia's first loss of the season, and one of the most heartbreaking losses in recent memory.
Coming into the match, Virginia was undefeated (as noted) and ranked #1 in the country. Their opponent in the NCAA final was USC, the two-time defending champ. All expected a heavyweight fight, and that's exactly what everyone in attendance at Stanford's Taube Tennis Center saw.
Early on, it appeared that Virginia was going to be routed. After quickly losing the doubles point, Virginia lost five of the first six sets in singles play. Shortly thereafter, USC wrapped up straight set victories at #5 and #1 singles to take a commanding 3-0 lead, one point from a third consecutive championship.
As expected, however, there was no quit in coach Brian Boland's Cavaliers.
Virginia needed to win each of the remaining four matches, and all four would be pushed to a decisive third set. Alex Domijan got the Hoos on the board with a thrilling 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory at #2 singles. Sixth-seed Julen Uriguen then won his match 6-2, 1-6, 6-3. All of a sudden, Virginia was on the verge of a historic comeback.
With a win at #4 singles, Jarmere Jenkins knotted up the match and all eyes were on the final match of the day, at #3 singles, between UVa's Sanam Singh and USC's Daniel Nguyen. Nguyen won the first set 7-5, but Singh roared back to take the second set 6-0. With the national championship on the line, Singh and Nguyen played an epic third set, full of net cords and broken serves.
"Even down 3-0, I was confident out there," said Boland. "There was great fight in these guys. We lost the doubles point, we lost five first sets, but we kept fighting and got back into the match. Sanam got back on serve in his match and it came down to a few net cords and an incredible second point by Daniel Nguyen, and that was the difference. Those are the kinds of matches that make the NCAA Tournament so special. We just game up on the short end today."
Down 2-5 in the decisive set, Singh kept battling. He held serve to draw the set to 3-5, then broke Nguyen in a game featuring no fewer than four deuce points. All of a sudden, the set was back on serve. Virginia fans all over the country (thanks to the ESPNU broadcast) were on the edge of their seats, and Singh's teammates were on their feet.
Then, just as quickly as Singh had evened up the match, it was over. Nguyen promptly broke Singh's serve in a heartbreaking game, giving Southern Cal the championship.
"This was a great college tennis match and I am proud of the team," said head coach Brian Boland. "All the credit to USC for playing a great match. They certainly came out and took it to us in doubles and then early in singles. My guys left everything they had on the court and battled back to get back even in the match. It was going to be a tough match for someone to lose. It was a tremendous experience for us to compete for a national title and I am sure we will learn from this experience."
Classy comments by Boland, but this is getting frustrating. In 2009, USC beat Virginia in the quarters. In 2010, USC defeated the Hoos in the semifinals. Now, Southern Cal has beaten the good guys in the final, by a razor-thin margin, in a year that everything had gone right for Virginia.
Three Cavaliers were named to the All-Tournament Team: Domijan, Singh, and Jenkins. Those three, plus Michael Shabaz and Drew Courtney will compete in the NCAA Singles Tournament, which begins on Wednesday.
Kudos to Coach Boland and the Hoos for a wonderful season. (Full results below.)
#2 Southern California 4, #1 Virginia 3
1. #2 Courtney/Shabaz (UVa) led #22 Poldma/Sundling (USC) 8-7 DNF
2. Gomez/Johnson (USC) def. Jenkins/Uriguen (UVa) 8-2
3. Nguyen/Sarmiento (USC) def. Domijan/Singh (UVa) 8-4
1. #1 Steve Johnson (USC) def. #5 Michael Shabaz (UVa) 7-6(2), 6-3
2. #2 Alex Domijan (UVa) def. #38 Jaak Poldma (USC) 3-6, 6-3, 6-4
3. #44 Daniel Nguyen (USC) def. #34 Sanam Singh (UVa) 7-5, 0-6, 6-4
4. #56 Jarmere Jenkins (UVa) def. #47 Ray Sarmiento (USC) 3-6, 6-1, 6-4
5. Emilio Gomez (USC) def. Justin Shane (UVa) 6-0, 6-3
6. Julen Uriguen (UVa) def. Peter Lucassen (USC) 6-2, 1-6, 6-3
Order of Finish