Rain before reign
Contenders overcome Mother Nature, move inside for semis
ATHENS, Ga. -- Surreality settled over everyone here Monday night -- or at least those who didn't flee when the skies flashed, rumbled and cried -- and it seemed like the faint sound of Eddie Rabbitt could be heard at one end of the building and that of The Carpenters at the other as USC and Virginia clocked into Monday's NCAA men's tennis championship match.
Weather forced semifinals of the NCAA championships indoors, and it was a little weird.
For starters, you had two teams from someplace where it almost never rains, Los Angeles, playing each other indoors nearly 2,300 miles from home as rain pounded the roof over their heads. Yet, fans were so raucous that if felt like everybody was loving L.A.
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Meanwhile, as four teams and four head coaches prowled four courts side-by-side-by-side-by-side simultaneously, an NCAA tournament first: a ball went up and ... stayed.
Jamare Jenkins' mis-hit stuck in the roof, not that it kept third-seeded Virginia from beating Pepperdine 4-1, the same score by which USC topped UCLA.
Hey, it was different -- other than USC's Steve Johnson winning for the 65th consecutive time.
“The people got their money’s worth. That was a long evening,” said Southern Cal coach Peter Smith, whose team will try to become the third in NCAA history to win four consecutive national titles.
“I saw [a similar turn of events] about 20 years ago. If you love college tennis, there’s nothing you could have loved more than that. That’s about as special as it gets.”
Special, and strange.
How many times have you been at an indoor college match where several players could be spotted with white sun-block on their ears or noses?
This one started in the bright sun, although by late afternoon the temperatures at Georgia's Dan McGill Tennis Complex had rolled back from the 90-plus degree weather in which the women semi-finaled.
You'll have to do some serious research to approximate the circumstances.
Before detailing how the Trojans (32-1) more than avenged their only loss of the season for a second time, some background for young members of the reading audience: the late Rabbitt wrote and sang the catchy I Love a Rainy Night in the 1980s, and The Carpenters' Rainy Days and Mondays came out in the '70s.
In actuality, there was no music in Georgia's indoor facility, although these would've been perfect songs along with It Never Rains in Southern California. That is, after all, home to USC, UCLA and Pepperdine.
Yet the vibe was somewhat like watching a good bar band. The place was jacked with 600 or so fans sounding like 6,000 while stacked up within a few feet of players as they stalked stomped aluminum bleachers. Energy pulsed through the building and noise richocheted off many things.
The double mega-garage doors were open at one end, but that didn't keep out the humidity. Air barely moved, and from the inside looking out those doors there was just inky black sky with the occasional snapshot of pouring rain visible when lightning flashed.
“It was a good discomfort for both teams,” Virginia coach Brian Boland said. “I compliment the NCAA on how they handled this. I thought it was fair for all the teams involved. It’s even and we go on to play hard [Monday].”
Not everybody was happy with procedure.
After separate semifinals started outdoors by sharing the six courts in Henry Feild Stadium (USC-UCLA) and the six adjacent McWhorter Courts (Pepperdine-Virginia), everybody was funneled to four courts as the rain picked up and continued for perhaps two hours.
Rather than cycle one semi through at a time, which would leave one winner in bed several hours before the other, tournament officials staggered it so that USC-UCLA was on two courts and Pepperdine-Virginia on the other two.
Outdoors, USC and Virginia had won doubles points. That didn't work out to be as important as in the women's semifinals, where UCLA and Florida won doubles points and then split six singles matches to each win 4-3.
UCLA men's coach Billy Martin -- whose team gave the Trojans their only loss this season in a 4-3 win at USC on April 20 -- wasn't keen on putting the Nos. 1 and 2 singles on the respective courts indoors. He was looking for something more random.
The Trojans got off to a fast start at the top two spots, where Johnson would go on to rout UCLA's Clay Thompson 6-1, 6-1, and at No. 2 where Ray Sarmiento ruled UCLA's by the exact same score.
“It’s crazy to fly 2,000 miles to play a school that’s 15 minutes from you,” said Johnson, who on Wednesday will begin defense of his 2011 national singles title. “With our crowd and their crowd, the rivalry doesn’t get much bigger.”
UCLA was far more competitive on courts 3-6 before moving indoors, but those guys all had to wait. Every one of those Bruins was leading, in fact.
“I don’t think it helped us with the format,” Martin said. “We probably got off to the worst starts in [1 and 2], and Stevie (Johnson) at one isn’t one we were expecting to win. So right off the bat we were down 3-0.”
Johnson's fellow senior, Daniel Nguyen, finished off the match with a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3) win against UCLA's Dennis Novikov at No. 3.
Virginia jumped out to a 2-0 lead, which Pepperdine's Sebastian Fanselow cut to 2-1 with a win at No. 1 against Jarmere Jenkins, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
The Cavaliers finished off the match with wins at Nos. 3 (Mitchell Frank) and 4 (Drew Courtney) to set up a rematch of last year's title tilt. The Trojans won that, 4-3.
This, in fact, will be the fourth consecutive season the Trojans and Cavs have met in the NCAA tournament with USC winning in the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals in order.
Smith, the USC coach, wasn't so quick to agree that the pressure will be on his team as the Trojans try to match the NCAA record for consecutive crowns.
“We might have legs that are tired, we might have arms that are tired, we might have minds that are tired, but I can tell you one thing -- the USC Trojans' hearts are not tired,” he said. “We’ll be there. We’ll be ready to go.”