The Great Champion
In May of 2007 thousands of fans packed a tennis stadium on a beautiful Memorial Day in Athens, Georgia. For nearly three hours they were treated to the game at its best. The two superstars of the collegiate game battled for a championship, playing near flawless tennis for three nail-biting sets. In the end, Somdev Devvarman emerged as the king of college tennis, topping Georgia’s John Isner 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 in one of the most exciting finals in the 123-year history of the tournament.
A year later, both players were on the court again on Memorial Day. While Isner took to the red clay of Roland Garros for the first time, Devvarman was 5,000 miles away, playing his final match as a Cavalier. He could have turned pro last summer, built up his ranking, and perhaps have been in Paris too. But for Devvarman, the tournament in Tulsa was more important.
The NCAA Championship was the event he came back for. Not to make history for himself, but for his team. He led Virginia to the best season in school history. The Cavaliers won their first-ever national championship, taking the ITA Team Indoor title in February. They went undefeated through the regular season and won another ACC Championship. But the dream season came to disappointing end with a 4-3 loss to eventual champion Georgia in the NCAA Semifinals.
“That was definitely the toughest moment of my tennis career,” said Devvarman of the loss to Georgia. “I am so passionate about my teammates, the whole tennis program, and we really wanted to win a national championship. At the end of the day, I am always going to look back and not have any regrets because I knew that we played as well as we could. We left it on the court, and if I could do it again, I’d do it exactly the same way and hope for a different result.”
A week after that loss, Devvarman put on a Virginia uniform for the last time. He was in the NCAA Singles Final, just as he was the previous two Memorial Days. Two years ago he came up short, falling to UCLA’s Benjamin Kohlloeffel. A year before he took the title with the epic victory over Isner. This year’s final was the culmination of his historic career. But Devvarman’s focus wasn’t on what another title would mean to him and his legacy, it was on what a win would do for this school.
“I wasn’t just playing for myself, I was playing for Virginia for the last time,” he said. “I was playing for my teammates and my coaches too. The loss in the team tournament was so hard to take, but this was the best thing I could do to cheer everyone up a little bit.”
There stood Somdev Devvarman, on Court One of the Michael D. Case Tennis Center. Just as he did a year earlier, he had the championship on his racquet. He was one point away from further etching his name in the history of the sport. Devvarman went for the ace, trying to seal this win like he did his first title: it landed just long. His second serve was true and when J.P. Smith’s return landed wide, Devvarman raised his arms in victory. He was the champion. Again.
The 2008 final lacked the drama of the one a year before. Facing Smith, the unseeded freshman from Tennessee, Devvarman took control of the match late in the first set and never looked back. He capped his career with a virtuoso performance. Aces. Winners down the line. Perfectly placed lobs. It was a 61-minute exhibition by one of the grand champions of college tennis.
He became just the fourth player in the past 50 years to win consecutive titles. During that time some of the greatest players of all time got their start in college tennis. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe followed their time on campus with a combined 18 Grand Slam singles titles. But those players never accomplished in college what Devvarman did in his time at Virginia.
“The records are special, but I’ll let other people decide where I stand,” said Devvarman on his place in the sport’s history. “I am just proud of what I was able to accomplish while I was here.”
The records seem to go on forever. A record 18 career NCAA Singles Championship victories. The first player since Northwestern’s Marty Riessen in the early 1960s to reach three consecutive NCAA finals. A school record 158 career singles wins. Ending his career on a school record 36-match winning streak. It is enough to make the humble champ blush. But his coach is more than willing to opine about Devvarman’s place among the greats of the game.
“He is arguably the best player to ever play college tennis,” said Brian Boland. “He is at least in a very small group of people that would be considered. Go back and try to find a player that not only had his results, but also had as big of an impact on a program.”
It was four years earlier that Boland, fresh off leading Virginia to the first ACC Championship and NCAA Round of 16 appearance in school history flew to Chennai, India for an in-home visit. His team was close to taking that next step towards becoming a powerhouse in the sport. On that trip he convinced a budding Indian star to come to America and play college tennis. The rest is history. Virginia, ACC, and NCAA history.
During Devvarman’s time in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers reached the NCAA Semifinals twice, were ranked No. 1 nationally, and became one of the elite teams in the country. All things that were distant dreams for the program through most of its existence.
Devvarman was the centerpiece of this transformation. He and classmate/best friend/doubles partner Treat Huey led the Cavaliers to new heights and are now No. 1 and No. 2 in the Virginia record book in every category.
His time on the court at Virginia has come to an end, but Devvarman will always be a Cavalier. His passion for his school is second to none.
“I can’t imagine any program having someone represent it better than Somdev Devvarman represented the University of Virginia,” said Boland. “He is a better person than a tennis player and that is saying a lot because he is an incredible player. The guy loves this school. He bleeds orange and blue. His legacy will be with us forever. Having seen for four years how he handles himself and goes about his game, I know he will have a very successful career as a pro.”
– By Steve Kirkland, Assistant Athletics Media Relations Director