Florida beats Clemson in tough battle
Six out of seven completed matches go to third-set tiebreak
STANFORD, Calif. --- The University of Florida earned a hard-fought 4-1 victory against Clemson on Friday afternoon and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships at Taube Tennis Stadium.
After the Gators won an exciting doubles point, the Tigers roared out onto the singles courts where they won the first set in five of the six matches. They appeared in control of the dual match and it looked as if Clemson would stage an upset of the tournament’s No. 2 seed.
The one court where Florida (28-1) won the first set eventually went to a third set, as five of the six matches needed a deciding third frame.
With the Gators rallying to take a 3-1 lead after getting singles victories from Lauren Embree – a 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 decision against Keri Wong for her 22nd consecutive win - and Joanna Mather – who rallied for an 0-6, 6-4, 6-3 win versus Nelly Ciolkowski for her 70th career singles win – attention turned to courts five and six.
Caroline Hitimana won the first set of her match at No. 6 against Caroline Magnusson, but fell behind 5-0 in the second. Hitimana did win three consecutive games, but Magnusson held to secure the second set and force a deciding third.
On court five, Alex Cercone was in a battle against Masha Belaya. Belaya claimed the first set in a tiebreaker. Cercone took a 4-2 lead after three consecutive breaks in the second set, but Belaya later broke for 4-all, but couldn’t hold as the Gator rookie broke and then served out to force a third set. There, Cercone jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but Belaya came up with a pair of breaks midway through and got the decider back on-serve through eight games. Cercone broke in the ninth and held one match point, but couldn’t hold, as the rest of the set was on-serve leading into a final tiebreaker to determine the winner.
The first nine points of the breaker were on-serve, but Cercone took both of Belaya’s serves en route to winning the final four points for the 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-6 (4) decision to clinch the victory for Florida. The match lasted 2 hours and 58 minutes. Cercone’s win was her team-leading 34th of the season, as well as her 11th consecutive.
Hitimana was receiving at match-point when play was halted.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been tested like we were today, probably since the finals of the (National Team) Indoors against Stanford. I’m really proud of our team,” UF head coach Roland Thornqvist said. “I thought we won today with our legs and our heads, perhaps more so than with our strokes. The fact that we were tested, we were nervous and we were able to hang in there at some spots by doing some smart things, I was very happy to see that.
“When you play this many three-setters, if we had to play again tomorrow, that you would be concerned about fatigue. We have a day off tomorrow. I’m glad we got through today,” Thornqvist continued. “I’m glad we were tested and I’m glad that we played well at the end. Once we started splitting sets, I thought it was advantage Gators because I do think we are very, very fit and I do think we can play three sets without losing too much in performance. This Clemson team played outstanding. Today was really tough. I’m happy that we were able to come through.”
Florida got a big boost at the start of the match by winning two well-played doubles matches.
The Gator pair of Embree and Sofie Oyen captured the 8-3 victory on court two against Belaya and Laurianne Henry in 38 minutes for the first win of the afternoon. The Gators found themselves trailing 2-0 before winning four consecutive games to take a 4-2 lead. Clemson broke in the next game, but Florida answered right back to maintain its break-advantage, as Oyen held for 6-3 and the Gators won the final two games and improved to 6-0 this season.
Clemson took the 8-4 outcome on court three 12 minutes later, leaving court one to determine the initial point of the dual match. Cercone and Allie Will were facing one of the nation’s best and most respected doubles team in Josipa Bek and Wong. The teams traded breaks to begin the match, before the pairs settled and held the next four games. Clemson then started a four-game break trend, as Will ended the run by holding for 6-5. Clemson held to even the match at 6-all and Cercone followed with a strong service game, before the Gators managed one final break to win the 8-6 decision to secure the doubles point and extend their winning streak to 12.
“We beat, what I consider to be the best doubles team in the country at (the number one position) to clinch and that was with a freshman and a sophomore,” Thornqvist said. “That was very impressive.”
Clemson (20-11) evened the team scoring with a 6-3, 6-3 victory on court three, where Klara Vyskocilova downed Oyen in what turned out to be the only straight-set decision of the match.
Florida, which improved to 25-3 all-time in the third round, won its 18th consecutive match and will play Miami (FL) in the quarterfinal round on Sunday beginning at 3 p.m. ET (noon PT). The Hurricanes downed Michigan, 4-2, in their third round match on Friday. Florida earned a hard-fought 4-1 win against Miami on Feb. 18 at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships.