May 30, 2010

FEATURE: Brothers Make NCAA Championship A Family Affair

By Marty Gitlin
Special to

OBERLIN, Ohio - It's called textbook doubles. In the sport of tennis, it wins championships.

It's low, hard, cross-court service returns. It's crisp volleying. It's nailing a high percentage of first serves. And it's winning the big points.

It's exactly what the University of California-St. Cruz tandem of Marc Vartabedian and Brian Pybas achieved in the finals of the NCAA Division III Men's Doubles Championships Sunday afternoon. And because of it, they emerged with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the plucky Trinity (Tex.) duo of Bobby Cocanaugher and Cory Kowal.

Meanwhile, the singles crown was earned by Washington University of St. Louis senior John Watts, who toppled Emory (N.Y.) sophomore Chris Goodwin in the title match, 6-1, 6-2.

The Santa Cruz doubles team, however, proved to be the most dominant of the event in either side of the draw. Vartabedian and Pybas were the only players who never lost a set during the four-day tournament. They defeated Cal-Lutheran's Andrew Guiffrida and Nick Ballou in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-2, earlier on Sunday while Cocanaugher and Kowal were stunning the top-seeded Middlebury (Ver.) team of Andrew Lee and Andrew Thomson, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.

Vartabedian and Pybas performed superbly, particularly on serve, where they staved off a number of break points and never lost. The most impressive stretch occurred when they trailed 3-4 in the second set. Vartabedian fell behind 0-40 and faced five break points in the game, but fought back to win. They then broke serve for the first time in the second set before Pybas served out the match.

The Santa Cruz duo remained aggressive from beginning to end, poaching off returns of their own serve, smashing service returns and attacking the net. It was a formula for success.

"We wanted to be that aggressive team rather than the team that put the ball back into the court and tried to out-rally them," Vartabedian said. "Every point you win, it's on to the next one. But when we finally won the last one, it was like, 'Whoa! Wow!'"

Pybas, a fifth singles seed who fell to the eventual champion Watts in the quarterfinals, expressed his joy after winning the doubles title.

"It's pure happiness," he said. "I just lost in singles and I was a little bit down about that. Marc and I played doubles together a little bit when I was a freshman, but not again until this year. So we've been waiting for this moment for three years."

Cocanaugher and Kowal were also waiting for such a moment, but simply couldn't outperform the brilliance of their opponents.

"They just played better than we did today," said Cocanaugher. "They definitely came up with big shots when they needed to, but we missed some volleys."

That was not Goodwin's problem on Sunday. He had performed flawlessly from the baseline throughout the tournament, but missed shot after shot, particularly on his forehand side, against Watts. Watts simply remained steady and Goodwin eventually missed.

Both players appeared a bit tight early, but after Goodwin broke serve to cut his first-set deficit to 1-2, he lost the next four games and the set. In fact, he didn't win a service game until after falling behind, 1-3 in the second set. He attempted a number of drop shots from the baseline that fell short, including one on match point.

Watts lost only one set in the tournament. Aside from that 0-6 defeat in the first round, he outscored his opponents in games, 61-22. He was particularly dominant on Sunday.

"This just feels awesome," said Watts, who was soaking wet following a celebration water bucket bath from his teammates after clinching the championship. "But I don't think I was any more deserving than a lot of other players.

"(Goodwin) and I have very similar games. Both of us like to be defensive and pick our spots to be more aggressive. Sometimes I might miss more and sometimes he might miss more. This was my lucky day."

It certainly wasn't Goodwin's. He couldn't find his game on Sunday.

"I played poorly today," he said. "There's no getting around it. But (Watts) makes a lot more balls than everyone else I played in this tournament. But if I had been on my game, I think I could have beaten him."

The same couldn't be said in the doubles draw. After all, the Trinity tandem played well. But Vartabedian and Pybas were simply stupendous.