By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — One by one the singles matches ended at the Snyder Tennis Center, until only two players remained Friday afternoon: UVa freshman Hana Tomljanovic and Princeton junior Taylor Marable.
The four-hour mark approached in these teams’ first-round match in the NCAA women’s tournament, and the score was tied: Cavaliers 3, Tigers 3. Players from both teams surrounded the court on which Tomljanovic and Marable were locked in a three-set duel.
The pressure was palpable. The winner at No. 4 singles would send her team to the second round, where defending NCAA champion Duke waited.
“I was pretty nervous,” Tomljanovic, a native of Croatia, said later. “It’s fun, though, at the same time. I had a lot of fun being out there and knowing that I’m the last one, that if I win, we won the whole thing.”
She lost the first set 6-3 and trailed 4-3 in the third and final set. But the hard-hitting Tomljanovic didn’t panic. She rallied to win 7-5, clinching the victory for the Wahoos, who advanced to the NCAA tourney’s second round for the fourth time in five seasons.
The match was UVa’s first at home in an NCAA tournament. The second comes Saturday, when Virginia (15-9) meets 10th-ranked Duke (20-7) at 4 p.m.
The Blue Devils, who eliminated Long Island on Friday, are seeded No. 1 in this regional. The ‘Hoos, ranked No. 27 nationally, are seeded No. 2.
“Our lineup is thin. We haven’t talked about it at all, but I’m just really, really happy for a bunch of young kids,” UVa coach Mark Guilbeau said after his team’s win over 33rd-ranked Princeton.
“Because for them to get to this stage and then win the first round, it’s maybe more impressive than a lot of people are going to realize. We’re hosting, and it’s great, but the bottom line is we’re a 2 seed playing probably the toughest 3 seed that we could have played. So it was a great opportunity, and our kids handled it really well.”
In their regular-season meeting April 3, Duke beat UVa 5-2 in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers’ winners that day included senior Jennifer Stevens at No. 5 singles. Stevens has since been suspended from the team for violating team rules, and Virginia’s lineup against Princeton consisted of sophomores Lindsey Hardenbergh and Emily Fraser and freshmen Tomljanovic, Erin Vierra, Katie Gater and Maria Fuccillo.
Fraser, at No. 2, and Vierra, at No. 3, each won in straight sets in singles. Together, they prevailed at No. 2 doubles to secure that point for the Cavaliers, who had won at No. 3 and lost at No. 1.
“Princeton’s a really tough team,” Fraser said. “We knew that coming out. We really had to get that doubles point, or else we’d be in a really rough position going into the singles.
“Thank God we got it. I think we all started out a little bit slow, maybe with nerves and what not, but we got it together and ended up getting it, so that was great.”
As it would be later in the afternoon on Tomljanovic and Marable, the focus of virtually everyone at the Snyder Center was on Fraser and Vierra and their opponents, sisters Melissa and Rachel Saiontz, as they battled for the crucial doubles point.
“When it gets down to that last moment, it’s really exciting, but it’s also really nerve-wracking,” Fraser said. “But I think we both felt that the other team was kind of cracking a little bit under the pressure, more than we were, so we kind of used that to fuel us to get that last game there and finish it out.”
The women’s team is not the national power that the UVa men have become, but with no juniors or seniors in his lineup, Guilbeau is optimistic about his program’s prospects.
“I think we’ve learned a lot, and the main thing is this team is going to get way better, now and for the future,” he said. “It’s just [a matter of] bringing in some more good ones that want to join a group like that.”
This is Guilbeau’s fifth season at UVa, and “I think for the first time we have the right kind of character in this program,” he said. “It’s actually the most positive stage we can be in. We’ve just got to continue to get a little better.”
He’s already seen improvement in players such as Tomljanovic, who’s learning to control her emotions on the court.
“It’s definitely a maturing process that she’s really gone through quite well,” Guilbeau said. “I’ve got to, again, give her a lot of respect, because those emotions run high. And I’d rather have that. I’d rather it be genuine than not really be engaged at all.
“With Hana, the emotions are mostly good, and it’s because she wants to be out there and wants to play and wants to win. I hope she’ll keep those emotions in check, just the way she did today. That allows her good tennis to come out.”
To beat the Blue Devils, the ‘Hoos will have to play great tennis Saturday. Still, Guilbeau said, his team should be loose in its second-round match.
“Pressure’s on Duke, to be honest,” he said.