Epic match brings back memories
Pepperdine's win against Georgia resembles match 24 years ago
ATHENS, Ga. -- It might surprise a few folks to know this, but the last time a Pepperdine tennis player squared off against a Georgia netter before a raucous pro-Bulldogs crowd at UGA's Henry Field Stadium with so much hanging in balance, the result was much the same.
The Wave won, and the Dogs were left depressed.
Alex Llompart, the Pepperdine senior whose marathon-esque 7-6(2), 6-7(2), 6-4 win against Georgia's Sadio Doumbia clinched the Waves' 4-3 win against the No. 2 Bulldogs in Saturday's quarterfinal, wasn't born when Pepperdine's Robbie Weiss beat Georgia's Al Parker for the national singles title here on May 20, 1988.
It seemed like the Waves (27-6) and Bulldogs (26-3) began playing the same day Parker and Weiss finished. They needed four hours and 45 minutes at the Dan McGill Tennis Complex, which is named after Parker's coach. That was McGill's last season.
Llompart and Doumbia played nearly an hour longer than anybody else, long after Sebastian Fanselow beat Georgia's Wil Spencer 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 at No. 1 to help Pepperdine rally from a 3-1 deficit to a 3-3 knot.
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Only when Doumbia's backhand found net well after dinner time to end a 4 p.m. match did the crowd of 3,167 finally pipe down. For the second day in a row, the Bulldogs fell at home. The Georgia women lost to Duke in a Saturday quarterfinal.
Perhaps this result didn't produce the exact feeling that came when Pepperdine beat Georgia to win its only national title, in 2006 at Stanford, but then again ...
“It feels as good, it really does,” said Pepperdine coach Adam Steinberg. “It's such an honor to play here, and obviously winning the national championship against that team was incredible ... there's probably no feeling like winning your last match, but this comes close. It's definitely up there, for sure. I feel amazing right now for my players.”
Llompart's third-set strategy of moving to the net paid off as he held every serve in the final set and gained the only break at 2-2 after wasting a 5-2 lead in the second set by hanging around on the baseline.
“At the beginning of the third set ... I wasn't moving so well. Whenever the points got longer, [Doumbia] was winning,” said the Puerto Rican Davis Cup team member. “My coach wanted me to mix up serving and volleying, staying back and coming in as soon as I could.”
Pepperdine took a 1-0 lead by winning the doubles point when Hugh Clarke and David Sofaer out-lasted Georgia's KU Singh and Wil Spencer at No. 3 for their 17th consecutive win.
Llompart and Finn Tearney set the table with a quick 8-1 win at No. 1 over Doumbia and Hernus Pieters.
“They really owned the big moments. They were composed,” said Georgia coach Manuel Diaz. “Pepperdine just played loose, and aggressive and very composed.”
The No. 7 Waves will play No. 3 Virginia (28-1) on Monday for the right to face either No. 1 USC or No. 4 UCLA in Tuesday's championship match.
For a few hours Sunday night, though, they celebrated an epic win in Athens.
After falling behind 0-1 in doubles, the Bulldogs won the first three singles matches at No. 4 (Ignacio Toboada), No. 2 (Singh) and No. 5 (Nathan Pasha).
Then, the Waves got back to work.
Jenson Turner finished off Pieters in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6(4), but Fanselow and Llompart really had to work.
Fanselow survived at No. 1 as Georgia's Spencer battled drive heaves late in the match, but over on No. 3 Llompart was at roughly the same time losing nearly all the momentum he built in moving to a 5-2 lead in his second set.
Ultimately, he and Doumbia started their third set just moments after Fanselow topped Spencer. In a stadium full of drama, all players for both teams stood just one court away and cheered their teammates.
“Obviously, the Georgia crowd was the biggest crowd we faced,” Fanselow said.
With the match and a semifinal berth waiting for the winner, Llompart fell behind 15-40 on his serve and his 5-4 lead looked like it might go the way his bigger lead had a set earlier. He followed every serve to the net, however, and it paid off.
“I was winning a lot of points at the net throughout the match, and we just decided to do what was working best,” he said. “I had to do something different, and I'm glad it worked out for the Waves.”
So amazing was the match that the Pepperdine coach broke character, sort of.
“Incredible. If you know me, I'm usually not at a loss for words,” Steinberg said. “We've never really been in this situation. This team has never played in front of a crowd like that.
“How they handled that, coming out and winning the doubles point, I was so proud. That was kind of like, 'Wow; we can really do this.' And I'm so proud of Alex coming back after giving away that second set.”