Irish Win First-Ever ITA Title
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Junior tennis twins Catrina Thompson (Las Vegas, Nev./Bishop Gorman H.S.) and Christian Thompson (Las Vegas, Nev./Bishop Gorman H.S.) fought off two match points and finally prevailed in a tiebreaker to give the University of Notre Dame its first-ever title in an Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) national championship Sunday, Oct. 9 at Riviera Tennis Club. The Thompsons, ranked #2 in the nation, won 9-8 (9-7) over a team from Fresno State in the final of the Riviera/ITA All-American Championships, the first grand slam of the 2005-06 season.
"This was an extremely exciting match, and Catrina and Christian played really well," said Notre Dame assistant coach Michelle Dasso, who accompanied the sisters to the All-Americans and stands with them as the only Irish players ever to reach a grand slam final. "They kept a great attitude with each other throughout the tournament, and they have improved so much since losing in the final last year. They are the top doubles team in the nation. I am so excited for them. They stayed calm and stayed focused when it got tight and battled through to the end. They deserved to win. "
The championship match between the Notre Dame sisters and the surprising team of Spaniard Lucia Sainz and German Kathrina Winterhalter from Fresno State, who came in ranked just 41st in the nation, was a classic, featuring several momentum shifts. Both sides had a pair of match points, but the Irish finally came through. In the tiebreaker, which was played when the score was tied at 8-8 following the first 16 games of the match, ND got its first match point on a poach volley winner by Catrina Thompson to make it 7-6. But a volley winner from Winterhalter on the ensuing point erased that chance. Catrina responded with a lob winner over the German to make it 8-7, and Sainz' return of Catrina Thompson's serve sailed just long to hand the Irish the championship. It was the first and only two-point lead for either team in the decisive tiebreaker. Sunday marked the closest doubles final in All-Amercan Championship history since the current pro-set format was adopted in 2001.
"We are excited to have the Thompsons come through in the final of a national tournament," said Irish head coach Jay Louderback. "They have been so close over the past year. I think this is a big step for them to play so well in such a big tournament. They played really well throughout, defeating several really good teams. This experience should be really big for them in the future."
Fresno State had a chance to serve out the match following a break of Christian Thompson's serve - after ND was up 30-0 - made it 8-7. The Bulldogs won a back-and-forth point at 30-30 to earn their first match point, but that was erased after Winterhalter could not handle a half-volley coming from a big backhand return by Christian Thompson. The Irish had a break point, but could not convert on it, and then Christian Thompson missed a backhand to give Sainz and Winterhalter a second match point. A volley by the German that landed just wide ended that opportunity, and the Thompsons finally got a net-cord winner after the fifth deuce of the game to convert on their fourth break point and force a tiebreaker.
The match was tight the entire way, featuring three sets of back-to-back service breaks. Notre Dame held easily to begin the match and then converted on their second break point on Sainz' serve to go up 2-0. Fresno State - as it would all day - answered immediately, losing just one point en route to breaking Christian Thompson to get back on serve. The Irish saved a pair of break points at 2-2 and went to deuce twice at 4-4, but then broke through for another break of Sainz - after being down 30-0 - to make it 6-4. The Thompsons went up 30-0 on Christian's serve in the next game, but Fresno State would rally and break back on an overhead winner by Sainz to get back on serve. Sainz and Winterhalter also had a pair of break points on Catrina Thompson's serve at 6-6, but could not convert them. A Sainz net error and a backhand pass by Catrina erased them, and then consecutive volley winners from Christian Thompson ended the game.
The Thompsons are the first team from any school to reach the title match of the ITA All-American Championships in consecutive years and come away with a title. Each of the three previous back-to-back finalists had gone winless in both attempts. Notre Dame - which knocked off three top-seven teams to reach the final - lost just 16 total games in the tournament, the second-fewest ever by a doubles champion, behind only the 11 surrendered by Sarah Riske and Aleke Tsoubanos of Vanderbilt in 2002. The Irish opened with an 8-0 victory over the seventh-ranked team of Gabrielle Duch and Neyssa Etienne of South Florida. The twins beat #6 Alice Barnes/Anne Yelsey of Stanford 9-7 on Friday and came back with an 8-1 triumph against #3 Iva Gersic/Maja Kovacek of New Mexico in the semifinals.
The Bulldogs saw their outstanding run in the tournament end. Sainz and Winterhalter cruised their way through qualifying with upsets of teams ranked 16th, 20th, and 36th nationally, and then knocked off the #8 and #11 squads in the main draw before shocking the top-ranked team in college tennis, Caroline Basu and Shadisha Robinson of Georgia, in Saturday's semifinals.
Catrina and Christian are the second set of twins from any school - and the first in the All-Americans - ever to win an ITA national championship, following Tami and Teri Whitlinger of Stanford, who won the 1989 ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships.
The Thompsons - who have been among the final four teams remaining in three of the last four grand slams - improved to 11-4 in their careers in grand slam events. They are now 7-1 in the All-American Championships after Irish competitors had been just 2-5 in its doubles main draw prior to that.
-- Courtesy Notre Dame