ATHENS, Ga. — Top-ranked Southern California took another solid step in its defense of three consecutive NCAA Championships Friday in dispatching Illinois with a 4-0 sweep in the NCAA Round of 16 in Athens, Ga. The Trojans were powerful down the line in their first day of action at Dan Magill Tennis Complex, eking out the doubles point and then following through with singles wins from Emilio Gomez, Ray Sarmiento and Steve Johnson. Johnson’s clincher pushes the senior’s win streak out to 63 in a row as he and the 30-1 Trojans now turn to face No. 8 seed Duke.
USC took to the courts in Athens before many of their fans back in California were even thinking about getting out of bed. The Trojans, however, shook off their morning cobwebs during doubles play to haul in an important early advantage against the Illini. Emilio Gomez and Yannick Hanfmann held off their Illinois opponents for a stretch of three consecutive games on court three while their teammates got their feet under them on the other two courts. Gomez/Hanfmann would fall 8-6 in their match against Gosea/Hoh, but USC’s Daniel Nguyen and Ray Sarmiento would follow with a surge to victory at the No. 2 spot. Nguyen/Sarmiento evened the score with an 8-4 win against Guignon/Kopinski, putting the focus on court one, where second-ranked Trojans Steve Johnson and Roberto Quiroz were mounting a comeback effort. The USC pair had stumbled to trail Illinois’ Kalmanovich/Nevolo 5-6, but turned the tide and knocked out the next three games with a pair of breaks and a solid hold from Johnson to take the match 8-6 and lock in a 1-0 lead for the Trojans on the way into singles action.
With that weight off their shoulders, the Trojans settled into singles with authority. USC snagged the first sets all the way down the line, sparked first by a shutout from No. 57 sophomore Emilio Gomez on court four. No. 1 senior Steve Johnson, meanwhile, found his groove on court one in his top-10 showdown with Illlinois’ No. 7 Dennis Nevolo, riding a relatively unstoppable service game to help power up USC’s effort. Next door to Johnson, No. 25 sophomore Ray Sarmiento kept steady in his No. 2 match with No. 31 Roy Kalmanovich. Sarmiento made himself at home on court two, following up his strong doubles match with Daniel Nguyen by staking his claim on a 6-3, 6-3 win against Kalmanovich in singles, bumping his Trojans up to a 3-0 lead on the Illini.
At the other end of the stadium, USC’s young guns of freshmen Yannick Hanfmann and Roberto Quiroz were also finding a comfort zone in Athens. Hanfmann even closed in on potentially coming through as the clincher, but Johnson had heated up on court one and was on a mission to be USC’s closer Friday. Johnson made one last stand at the service line, and secured victory for the Trojans with a 6-4, 6-3 win against No. 7 Nevolo to wrap up the 4-0 win for USC and punch a ticket to Sunday’s quarterfinals.