May 29, 2010

By Marty Gitlin
Special to

OBERLIN, Ohio - John Watts had been headed in the wrong direction.

The Washington (Mo.) University senior lost in the finals of the NCAA Division III Men's Tennis Championships as a freshman. He was bounced in the semifinals in 2008. He was eliminated in the quarters last year.

Logically, his teammates from the St. Louis school ribbed him that he was destined for a round-of-16 demise this season.

But sometimes the sport has no logic. Watts has performed as well as any player in the 2010 event, and he advanced to the title round by defeating fifth-seeded Brian Pybas of California-Santa Cruz 6-3, 6-1 and Andrew Lee of Middlebury (Conn.) 7-6 (3), 6-3 on Saturday.

Watts will play for the championship at 1 p.m. Sunday against sophomore Chris Goodwin of Emory, who defeated Stephen Sullivan of Bowdoin 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 and second-seeded Austin Chafetz of Amherst 6-2, 2-6, 6-3. Aside from a 6-0 defeat in the second set of the first round, Watts has outscored his opponents in games 49-19 during this tournament.

"Everyone was predicting that I would lose in the round of 16," Watts joked after his semifinal victory over Lee. He didn't even lose in the round of four. Watts broke Lee's serve in all but one point of the first-set tiebreaker, then dominated the second set. He broke again to take a 3-1 lead and cruised to the win.

Watts lost his serve just once all day. The key was winning the first-set tiebreaker. "I don't know how I broke his serve so many times in the tiebreaker," Watts said. "I guess I was just at the right place at the right time.

He had been serving really well in the first set.

"But it was great to get that tiebreaker because it gave me a little momentum heading into the second set. (Lee) is very fit, and I don't think there was any possibility I could wear him out in three sets."

Watts certainly tried to wear him out. He angled his groundstrokes exceptionally well in the second set off both his forehand and backhand and moved Lee around the court.

"I tried to be a little bit more aggressive in the second set," Watts said. "The tempo slowed down when the balls got a little bit deader, and both of us had more time to set up our shots."

One player who didn't bother setting up his shots was Chafetz, who slugged the ball with tremendous pace and attempted to angle nearly every shot in going for winners. His style often proved beneficial, but it also resulted in a large number of unforced errors.

Meanwhile, Goodwin sweated out his opponent's hot streaks and remained steady, particularly on service returns. He kept Chafetz's serve on the court, breaking his serve in every game of the first set. But Chafetz heated up in the second set, holding serve throughout and mixing in more of a net game and angled backhands for winners.

Down 3-4, 15-40 in the third set, Chafetz rebounded to take an ad lead, but he lost that game. Goodwin finished him off on match point with a sweet cross-court forehand drop shot. In the end, his steadiness overcame Chafetz's all-or-nothing style.

"I tried to hit the ball back enough so he would eventually miss," said Goodwin, whose brother Michael won the singles title a year ago. "I wasn't going for a whole lot in the first set."

So did Goodwin merely wait out Chafetz's run of winners with a smile?

"No, it still bothered me when he hit those winners," Goodwin replied with a slight grin. "But I knew he was going to hit winners. I just had to keep hitting my shots and hope that he finally made some errors too. I think me getting all those balls back caused more errors on his part."

The doubles quarterfinals featured no major surprises. The top-seeded tandem of Andrew Lee and Andrew Thomson (Middlebury) cruised past Pat Boyd and Cyrus Jadun (Kalamazoo) 6-1, 6-1, and the second-seeded duo of Pybas and Marc Vartabedian (UC-Santa Cruz) rolled by Evan Goff and Kaz Murata of Mary Washington (Va.) 6-2, 6-2. Meanwhile, the Trinity (Texas) team of Bobby Cocanaugher and Cory Kowal defeated the Washington (Mo.) pair of Isaac Stein and Max Woods 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, and the fourth-seeded duo of Nick Ballou and Andrew Giuffrida of Cal Lutheran overcame Michael Greenberg and Charles Brody of Kenyon (Ohio) 1-6, 6-4, 6-2.

"Right at the beginning of the second set, everything changed," Ballou said. "As soon as we got our first (service) break, we knew that the momentum was ours. In the first set, we were missing a lot of shots and making a lot of unforced errors."

The Santa Cruz and Cal Lutheran teams will square off at 1 p.m. Sunday, as will the duos from Middlebury and Trinity.