ATHENS, Ga. – Having played up to and past midnight Monday, USC was faced with the prospect of going indoors for another late night Tuesday with odds stacked the wrong way in the Trojans’ pursuit of a historic fourth consecutive men’s national tennis title.
Peter Smith, the USC coach, wasn’t feeling it.
Good thing Yannick Hanfmann’s on his team. Hanfmann, a freshman, rallied to beat Virginia’s Justin Shane 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(4) to clinch USC’s second national title of the year; Hanfmann also played out the deciding match when the Trojans beat Ohio State 4-3 on Feb. 20 to win the ITA National Indoor Championship.
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USC won 4-2 this time, indoors again, but over the course of the nearly eight hours it took to get it done Smith felt like he aged years.
“For a freshman to do that is remarkable,” Smith said after the Trojans won their record 20th national title. “This just feels so good.”
Virginia (29-2), driven by whatever propels a team after it has been knocked out of the three previous NCAA tournaments by USC while seeded No. 1 each time, had just won the doubles point Monday before it began to pour at Georgia’s Dan McGill Tennis Complex.
Smith knew that overcoming that doubles point is a tricky proposition in singles, and everybody knew that there wasn’t going to be any tennis played outdoors or indoors for a couple hours or more so he went back to his hotel to wait and play meteorologist.
For as calm and cool as he usually seems, Smith was suffering a crisis of confidence.
“After the doubles . . . I went in there and said, ‘We’ve been in [the Lindsey Hopkins Indoor Courts] a long time. Yesterday was a long day,’ ” Smith recalled in referencing his team’s semifinal win against UCLA and the decision to allow players to return to their hotel rooms if they chose.
“I think sometimes you inspire your team and sometimes my team inspires me. I went back to my hotel room, and . . . to be honest I couldn’t visualize it. That was hard for me. I got a few pep talks, went in there and faked it pretty good to the team and these guys really stepped up.”
Tournament officials finally had the courts dried off more than two hours after the delay began, but as the wind picked way up, lightning crackled in the distance and a few rain drops fell, the decision was made to go indoors and play.
The Trojans tied it up quickly as senior Steve Johnson won his 66th consecutive match, 6-3, 6-2 against Virginia’s Jermere Jenkins.
USC’s Emilio Gomez (No. 4 singles), Virginia freshman Mitchell Frank (No. 3) and USC’s Ray Sarmiento registered wins to make the score 3-2 USC as the matches were spread over the four indoor courts.
That left Hanfmann at No. 5 singles and fellow freshman Roberto Quiroz at No. 6, working against Virginia’s Shane and Julen Uriguen. They played as courts became available.
Both matches saw the first two sets split, and at one point in the thirds, Shane was up 5-4 and Uriguen was up 4-1 on side-by-side courts.
Smith was working aside Hanfmann’s court, literally suggesting strategy to the freshman before every serve and often telling him what to expect from Shane as the Cavalier would serve. If you were close enough, you could hear the coach say – among other things – to Hanfmann, “Visualize it; see it. Visualize it; see it.”
Virginia coach Brian Boland – whose team was the No. 1 seed entering the 2008, ’09, ’10 and ’11 national tournaments only to fall in to USC in the ’09 quarterfinals, the ’10 semifinals, and in last year’s championship – and his assistants took a more low-maintenance approach in chasing the Cavs’ first national championship.
USC’s Johnson said, “My heart can’t take it any more. I get more stress watching than playing. As a player . . . to have it out of your control is just stressful to watch.”
Amid a raucous din created by what was left of the original crowd of 1,600 plus, a match that began just after 5 p.m. was delayed twice and eventually finished indoors at 12:53 a.m. was wrapped by a young “veteran.”
After Hanfman trailed 5-4 in the third set after being broken, the young man from Karlsruhe, Germany broke back.
The Trojans lost the doubles point just twice all season; on each occasion they rallied to win a national title with Hanfmann at the helm.
“It came to my mind, but Indoors was a long time ago,” this freshman said. “I knew that I can do that. The whole team was just competing, and playing their [butts] off like coach wanted us to do. Just seeing everybody playing so hard was an inspiration for me.”
Knotted 3-3 in the tiebreaker, Hanfmann won the final four points to trigger delirium.
“We always say you have to be willing to go through the pain if you want to play the game,” said Boland. “I thought we did things the right way and gave ourselves a chance.”
Smith was complimentary of Boland, the Cavaliers and his own team after the Trojans joined the USC squads of 1966-’69 and the Stanford teams of ’95-’98 as the only ones to win four national titles consecutively.
“Everyone always just says, ‘You know Stevie’s going to win,’ but to do what he does is so, so tough,” the coach said. “Emilio played the worst indoor match yesterday and played so well today, and then . . . for Yannick to break at 5-4 and do it in the ‘breaker . . . wow!
“To have two freshmen be the last two for us, it was going to be tough, but . . . the tradition lives on. It’s unbelievable.”