CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Courtesy of the ITA – The matchup may not have been as expected, but the quality of play was everything anticipated and more on Monday in the championship match of the 2012 ITA National Men’s Team Indoor Championship, host by the University of Virginia at the Boar’s Head Sports Club in Charlottesville, Va. The top-seeded USC Trojans were able to overcome dropping the doubles point for the first time all season, rebounding to defeat the third-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in a 4-3 thriller.
“We just got punched in the face in doubles,” USC head coach Peter Smith stated. “I told them if you get punched in the face, you better get up and punch back. We have a couple of veterans that we knew we could count on, and I thought we had a good game plan in singles. It was good to see the team compete as hard as they did. The guys came out and did the things we talked about, which was good to see.”
Ohio State’s Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola, the top-ranked doubles pair in the Campbell/ITA College Tennis Rankings, got out to a quick start against No. 26 Steve Johnson and Yannick Hanfmann. Buchanan and Rola earned an early break for a 3-1 lead, eventually stretching their advantage out to 6-2. The Trojan tandem was able to get one of the breaks back, but the deficit was too much to overcome. Rola served out the 8-5 victory to get the Buckeyes off to a solid start.
The other two doubles matches were much tighter, but it was Ohio State that was able to play the key points better. At the third spot, USC’s Emilio Gomez and Roberto Quiroz claimed a break lead at 5-3 against the Buckeyes’ Peter Kobelt and Connor Smith. The lead held up until 6-5, when Kobelt and Smith were able to break back for 6-6. Each player held serve to send the match into a tiebreak. The Ohio State duo got out to a quick start in the tiebreak, taking it seven points to four when Smith ripped a cross-court return for a clean winner.
The experience of USC showed immediately once singles play got started, with the Trojans’ top four players getting a handle on their matches early. Senior Daniely Nguyen, ranked No. 14 in the Campbell/ITA College Tennis Singles Rankings, was on mission at the third spot. Ohio State’s Peter Kobelt was coming off an impressive victory over top-ranked Mitchell Frank of Virginia in the semifinals, but Nguyen won the first five games of the match before Kobelt was finally able to get on the board. Nguyen won the opening set 6-1, and did not experience a drop in level of play in the second. Kobelt was never allowed an opportunity to get into the match, as Nguyen won the final five games of the match to give USC its first point.
The Trojans took their first lead of the day when the next singles match was completed, as No. 47 Emilio Gomez defeated No. 99 Ille Van Engelen 6-3, 6-4 at the fourth position. Gomez was able to stretch his 3-2 lead out to 5-2 in the opening set, holding serve at 5-3 to take a one set lead. He broke the serve of Van Engelen to open the second, and when he claimed a second break for a 4-1, it was clear Van Engelen was going to be given zero chances to work his way back into the match.
At the sixth position, Campbell/ITA College Tennis Rankings No. 107 Connor Smith gave the Buckeyes another point. Smith made quick work of USC’s Eric Johnson the first, winning it 6-3, and appeared to be in for an easy second set when he took a 3-0 lead. However, Johnson was able to win three straight games to get the set back on serve. Johnson broke serve again at 5-5, giving himself a chance to serve out the set, but failed to capitalize, sending the set into a tiebreak. It wasn’t easy for Smith, but he was finally able to close out the tiebreak eight points to six.
The matches at the top two spots featured a pair of showdowns between players in the top 20 of the Campbell/ITA College Tennis Rankings. The Trojans’ Steve Johnson, ranked No. 11, was able to get ahead with an early break against No. 16 Chase Buchanan, but Buchanan battled back to close the score to 3-2 in favor of Johnson. The Buckeye senior failed to keep the momentum going, dropping serve in the very next game; Johnson served out the first set effectively 6-3. Buchanan was not discouraged by letting the first set slip away, staying on serve for the majority of the second with Johnson, managing to fight off four break points at 3-3. However, in his next service game, he was unable to dig out of trouble, collapsing under the constant pressure he was put under by Johnson’s return game. Johnson played a calm, controlled game at 5-4, ending the match with an ace to give his team the lead 3-2.
On the next court, No. 12 Blaz Rola fell behind an early break against No. 18 Ray Sarmiento. Rola continued to battle in the set, finally breaking serve with Sarmiento serving for the set at 5-4. Rola managed to hold in the next game for a 6-5 lead, winning the opening set when Sarmiento netted a backhand down set point. The second set remained on serve until Sarmiento was serving at 3-4, as Rola broke serve for an opportunity to serve for the match; Rola held comfortably, and the overall match score was even at 3-3.
With all other courts completed, the all eyes turned to the three-set match taking place at the fifth position. Ohio State’s Devin McCarthy faced little resistance in taking the first set 6-3 against USC’s Yannick Hanfmann, but the Trojan rookie took a break lead early in the second. Hanfmann’s big serve was all he needed to take the second set by a score of 6-3. With the championship to be decided by the third and final set, both players started out well on serve. That all changed at 2-2, when Hanfmann was able to earn a break. Hanfmann was able to rely on his big serve to pull him out of any danger in his remaining service games, not giving McCarthy an opportunity to even the score. The USC freshman boomed a service winner on match point to clinch the championship with his 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph.
“I have never been in that situation before, being a freshman. This was all very new to me. The pressure was huge, so I was relieved to get the break because I knew all I had to do was serve it out. It is easier said than done. I just told myself I had to stay calm and block out the crowd. He was hitting big in the first set, but missed a lot in the second. I didn’t really do anything different, just tried to make more balls.”