ATHENS, Ga. — When it was finally over, after the Florida out-lasted Duke 4-3 to punch the Gators’ third consecutive trip to the NCAA women’s tennis championship match, Roland Thornqvist was clear on some details but a little fuzzy on others.
Chalk that up to heat of the moment and just plain Southern heat.
The No. 2 Gators and No. 1 UCLA emerged from pressure and a cooker of sorts in winning national semifinals on Monday against the Blue Devils and Southern California, respectively, as the risk of heat stroke made it tough to recall strokes at Georgia’s Dan McGill Tennis Complex.
Citing the, “the fog of war,” when he forgot a certain finer point, the Florida coach spoke for all participants. There were plenty of rosy cheeks and the stench of competition was strong upon student-athletes and coaches alike after working for four hours, 44 minutes under relentless sun in heat that went beyond 90 degrees.
Florida won the doubles point, but, “Duke is one heck of a team. The first hour in singles they were beating us to death,” Thornqvist said. “They were making us run. I thought it got to us. I was concerned.”
He had due cause. Duke’s game plan to extend points and move the bigger Gators around worked so well that the Blue Devils won the first sets in five of six singles matches.
The Gators took a 2-0 lead, however, on the only court where they didn’t lose the first set. Lauren Embree beat Duke’s Ester Goldfield 6-4, 6-1 at No. 2 singles.
Florida pushed up to 3-0 when Joanna Mather rallied hard at No. 3 for a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 win against Hanna Mar. At one point during her match, Mather had to step away between first and second serves to wretch. “That’s the first time I’ve every done that,” Mather said. “I probably distracted (Mar) a little bit. I certainly don’t want to make a habit of it.”
For a while after that, it was all Duke again. The Blue Devils (29-3) scored wins at No. 6 (Monica Turewicz), No. 1 — where freshman Beatrice Capra beat No. 1-ranked Allie Will 6-4, 6-4 — and at No. 4 (Rachel Kahan).
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“I felt the longer we could make the match, the better off we would be,” Duke coach Jamie Ashworth said. “If you are going to take out a great team like that, you have to knock out the champion. I thought we pushed them more than they’ve been pushed.”
Florida’s Alex Cercone was moved to take advantage of a heat break to rest for about 10 minutes between the second and third sets at No. 5, and she wasn’t alone.
Thornqvist clearly remembered Cercone’s clinching match in part because she has made herself so hard to forget.
She’s 8-0 in NCAA dual matches in two seasons, and after she beat Duke’s Mary Clayton 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 to send the defending national champions back to the finale, Cercone’s coach applauded her for seeking cover while still working.
After rallying to win the second set and extend her match, Cercone took a heat break.
When the on-court temperature is 90 or higher for a certain period of time and a match splits its first two sets, either competitor may opt for this break. Cercone did, and after going to change shirts in an air-conditioned locker room, she returned and rolled in her third set.
“Alex this semester had some ups and downs in her play, but somehow when you come to this event she’s a different player,” Thornqvist said.
“Today she got out-played, but found a way to win the second. She was just a surgeon at the end [of the third]. She put the ball where she wanted it to be.”
Florida, which lost 4-3 to Stanford in the 2010 national championship match and beat Stanford 4-3 last year the title, will meet UCLA Tuesday at 1 p.m.
The Bruins survived their cross-town rivals for a 4-3 win when USC’s Danielle Lao appeared to run out of gas at No. 2 singles. UCLA’s McCall Jones, who’d lost to Lao twice earlier this season and played another suspended match against her, clinched UCLA’s win when she passed Lao 6-4, 2-6, 6-2.
As in the Duke-Florida match, USC and UCLA split the singles matches down the middle to leave the winner of the earlier doubles points as the match victor.
Oh, and Bruins and Trojans were hot, too.
“I think she got a little tight when she knew it was going to come down to her,” Jones said of Lao. “For me, it was the opposite effect. I played my better tennis when I knew it was going to come down to me. I started playing the way I wanted to play. I looked at the scoreboard, and I told myself I had to do it.”
UCLA (26-2) gave USC (24-4) three of its four losses this season and the Trojans were one of two teams to beat UCLA.
USC coach Richard Gallien maintained a wry sense of humor and applied it when asked to predict Tuesday’s winner. You might think he’d side with his Pac-12 rival as the Bruins go for their second team title and the Gators go for their sixth.
Gallien would have none of it.
“I’ve learned that rooting does no good,” he said. “I root every year for my mother-in-law not to come to Thanksgiving and she keeps coming.”