FLUSHING, NY - After three days of big upsets and surprising results, today's final round still offered a chance for the favorites to put a halt to the parity that the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships have produced. USC's Steve Johnson and Cal's Jana Juricova each looked to defend their singles titles against familiar foes, Rhyne Williams of Tennessee and Maria Sanchez of USC, while Sanchez and Johnson were also trying to become just the second men's and women's singles champions from the same school in the history of the tournament to sweep the singles titles.
The USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships feature the nation's top men's and women's collegiate tennis players competing at the new indoor facilities at the USTA-Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, located in Flushing, New York with Columbia University serving as the tournament host.
Johnson and Juricova, each looking to defend their indoor title and each carrying the top-remaining seed throughout the past two rounds, were the unquestioned favorites heading into today's singles final.
Johnson was attempting to become just the fourth player in the 34-year men's history of the event to win back-to-back singles titles. A feat only accomplished by UCLA's Benjamin Kohlloeffel, Arizona State's Sargis Sargsian and Trinity's Erick Iskersky.
Meanwhile, Juricova, the top-ranked player in the Campbell/ITA College Tennis Rankings, was also looking to become the fourth player in history to win the indoor singles title in consecutive years. She would join Aurelija Miseviciute of Arkansas, Agata Cioroch of Georgia and Laura Granville of Stanford in doing so.
Both players were familiar with their opponents, especially in the case of Juricova, who would face the third-ranked Sanchez for the sixth-time over the course of the past three years. Juricova, previously 4-1, lifetime, against Sanchez quickly disposed of the Trojan in their last meeting, with a 6-2, 6-2 win in the 2010 NCAA team championship round of 32.
However, even Juricova might have thought she was facing an unfamiliar opponent in Sanchez after playing arguably the best tennis of her life in this tournament. Sanchez, who no doubt had the most impressive tournament run on paper, was looking for her fourth-straight top 10 victory through an extremely tough tournament run to the title.
Coming into today's match, the Trojan senior managed straight-set victories over two top-10 ranked opponents in Friday's matches with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over Clemson's Josipa Bek in the Round of 16, followed by a 6-2, 6-2 upset of No. 4 seeded Denise Muresan of Michigan in the quarterfinals.
The semifinals offered up another chance for Sanchez to take down a higher-seeded opponent in No. 6 Allie Will of Florida, who had just upset the tournament's top seed in the quarterfinals. Sanchez held tough in the first set to win that one, and although Will pulled through to take the second set, Sanchez dug in and took no prisoners in the third set, tacking up a 7-5, 4-6, 6-0 win to earn her place in the championship.
With Sanchez continuing her red-hot play, Juricova looked as though she didn't know what had hit her after a very fast-paced first set, won by Sanchez, 6-2 in commanding fashion. However, even Sanchez knew Juricova wasn't ready to just hand over the title and that closing out the Cal junior would prove to be a tall order.
Juricova evened up the match after firing back with a 6-3 win in the second set. The final set began to look very similar to the first as Sanchez jumped out early by breaking Juricova. Still, the Cal Bear would refuse to go down without a fight, clawing back to a 4-5 deficit before Sanchez was able to close out the victory and finally take down her familiar foe for the first time in the last four meetings.
"Jana's a great player and has beaten me quite a few times, so I'm really happy to get this win today," Sanchez said. "It's such a great feeling being the Indoor Champion!"
Two courts away was another three-set thriller that featured a Trojan and a defending singles champion. In fact, other than Johnson's quarterfinal clash with an upset-minded Austen Childs of Louisville, Johnson advanced to the final nearly untested, surrendering a mere 12 games through his four other matches. Johnson knew that Williams, known for his ability to get fired up for big matches, would be no easy defeat. In fact, the title tilt against the sophomore Volunteer would be a rematch from the first round of the 2010 NCAA Championships, a match Williams would go on to win in straight sets.
Williams knew it would be tough to take down the champ two times in a row, and that slowing down Johnson's serves and unrivaled ability to hit remarkable return shots would be dire in stopping the junior Trojan from repeating.
"I was quite nervous at the start of the match and came out flat," Williams said. "I was definitely lucky to get back into it."
Williams lost serve two times and fell behind 0-5 to start the first set 6-1, but the roles were reversed in the second set when Williams rolled past Johnson, delivering the same 6-1 result. With the crowd nervously watching both finals matches simultaneously, separated by only one court between them, the USC players held a slight edge early in both of the third sets until finally Williams got his break on Johnson at 4-4 and was able to grind out the win, 1-6, 6-1, 6-4.
"I returned really well in the latter two sets," Williams said. "I was able to get a read on his serve, which is so tough, and hit some great shots to win."
"This was a great win for Rhyne," Tennessee Associate Head Coach Chris Woodruff said. "It's not an easy tournament to win. Looking at the names of previous champions, it's a real who's who of professional tennis."
This was Williams' first appearance in a national singles final, becoming the first Vol to win the indoor title since Paul Annacone in 1984.
Rhyne Williams - Tennessee
(7) Steve Johnson - USC
(1-6, 6-1, 6-4)
(7) Maria Sanchez
(2) Jana Juricova - California
(6-2, 3-6, 6-4)
Dadamo/Krajicek - Texas A&M
(4)Thiemann/Thiemann - Ole Miss
(6-3, 7-6 )
Oyen/Will - Florida
(3)Josipa Bek/Keri Wong - Clemson
(5-7, 6-3, 6-3)
The men's doubles final pitted two top-10 teams squaring off in the fourth-ranked duo of Texas A&M All-American seniors Austin Krajicek and Jeff Dadamo, who qualified for the draw as alternates, versus the fourth-seeded pairing of Ole Miss twins, Chris and Marcel Thiemann.
Sunday's final was a rematch from the second round of the 2010 NCAA Team Championships won by the Aggies.
The Thiemann's faced up an uphill battle after losing the first 6-3, but they rallied and had several chances to force a third set, before succumbing in the second set tiebreaker, 7-6(3). The Texas A&M duo hit a high percentage of first serves and for the second straight match played a nearly flawless tiebreak set to win the match.
"They served really well in the first set and broke us right away followed up by playing a great tiebreaker", said Chris.
"Jeff and I just seem to come out really focused playing indoors", said Krajicek. "Both of us prefer a little bit faster courts so these compliment our game pretty nicely."
In women's doubles, Florida's Will and freshman Sofie Oyen were not only looking to claim their first title together but to also avenge their only loss this season to the fifth-ranked Clemson duo of Bek and Keri Wong. The Tigers defeated the Gator team in October at the All-American Championships on their way to a runner-up finish.
After dropping a tough first set, 5-7, the Gators dug in, winning the final two sets, 6-3, capping an impressive tournament, in which they knocked off three of the top four seeds in the draw, including the third-seeded Tigers.
"We got another national title!" UF head coach Roland Thornqvist exclaimed following the match. "This was one of the best doubles matches I've seen in my 16 years of coaching tennis. Both teams played phenomenal tennis."
"Sofie and I have just gone out there trying to embrace the moment", said Will. "We had so much fun out there and I think that's why we were so successful."
Oyen and Will became the third different Gator tandem to win the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships doubles title, while also becoming the 18th and 19th different Gators to win an individual Grand Slam title, as the freshman and sophomore, respectively, produced the 24th championship trophy in the illustrious history of the Florida program
For complete results and event information, visit www.itatennis.com.