By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Michael Shabaz, it has become a rite of spring. He heads off to the NCAA men’s tennis championships in May. Two weeks later he returns to UVa with a gleaming trophy.
In 2009, when Shabaz was a sophomore, he and then-senior Dominic Inglot became the first doubles team from the ACC to win an NCAA title.
That was in College Station, Texas. The tournament shifted this year to Athens, Ga., where Shabaz and his latest partner, sophomore Drew Courtney, earned another championship for the Wahoos.
“The second one feels just as good,” Shabaz said.
Courtney can’t vouch for that — at least not yet — but his first NCAA championship is “pretty special,” he said Tuesday afternoon at the Snyder Tennis Cennter.
“Coming into this year, I really had no expectations of coming out a national champion, but once Shabaz and I started playing together, I knew we had a good shot.”
Forgive Tennessee’s John-Patrick Smith and Davey Sandgren if the sight of Shabaz across the net unnerves them. A year ago, Smith and Sandgren fell to Shabaz and Inglot in the NCAA doubles final.
Smith and Sandgren made it back to the championship match this year, only to lose to Shabaz and Courtney, both of whom are from Northern Virginia. The unseeded UVa team beat the second-seeded Vols 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-3.
“To be honest, I felt bad, especially for J.P., just because he’s put himself in position numerous times to come through with a title,” Shabaz said. “It’s tough in a lot of ways, just because one person has to come out with the win, and one person has to come out with the loss, and it’s a little ironic, I guess, that they were on the other side of the net again.”
Courtney, who at 6-5 stands seven inches taller than Shabaz, played No. 3 doubles with senior Lee Singer early in the season. But Cavaliers coach Brian Boland shook up his doubles lineup after a Feb. 6 loss to Kentucky, pairing Courtney with Shabaz at No. 1.
Inglot and Shabaz “matched up really well,” Courtney said, “I felt the coaching staff really thought that I played a lot like Dom. So Shabaz and I kind of meshed well together, and I just wanted to go out and have fun, and if it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t, we’d go back to what we know. But it ended up working.”
Shabaz said: “Drew has upped his level a lot from last year to this year. He’s doing certain things on the court a lot better … and his serve has gotten bigger and bigger, and it continues to get better.
“When he’s hitting his spots on his serves, if the ball comes back, I’m all over it on the top of the net. And again, I have a pretty good serve, and the more consistent return. We feel like with our combination of serve and return that we could really frustrate a lot of teams, and that was basically our game style, and that’s what worked for us.”
Shabaz reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA singles tournament last month, so his talent is undeniable. Talent alone, however, does not make a great doubles partner.
“He’s got a great serve, first of all,” said Courtney, who advanced to the second round in NCAA singles. “That makes it easy for me up at the net. His returns are the best in the country, by far, so with a serve like his and returns like his, you’re going to have your chances to win every game. It makes it easy on me. I can just go out there and play loose and focus on my service games and try and do my best to put away easy volleys and hit my shots from the back of the court.”
In the team portion of the NCAA tournament, the duo gave little hint of what was to come. In UVa’s quarterfinal win over UCLA, Shabaz and Courtney lost at No. 1 doubles on a tiebreaker. A day later, in the Cavaliers’ semifinal loss to eventual NCAA champion Southern California, Shabaz and Courtney fell again, this time 8-5.
“Playing an eight-game pro set is totally different than playing two-out-of-three sets,” Courtney said. “So going into the NCAA doubles tournament, Shabaz and I just really wanted to take it point by point and just let it kind of fold out from there, and luckily we played well. But I think the format helped us.”
Shabaz agreed. “The eight-game pros, they go by so quick,” he said. “Literally, you play one or two bad points and the [opponent] gets a break and the next thing you know, the match is over.”
Courtney said: “Whereas with two-out-of-three sets, you have a little bit more time to get your feet into it, to get your rhythm, and there’s also, like, a fresh start. So if you lose the first set, you can kind of go out there and regroup and try to change things.”
This was the sixth straight season in which Virginia advanced to at least the NCAA quarterfinals, and Boland’s team is likely to contend for the national crown again next year. As seniors, Shabaz and Sanam Singh will lead UVa’s 2011 pursuit of its first NCAA team title.
“We’re excited about next year, definitely,” Shabaz said. “It’s going to be a really fun year in a lot of ways, and we’re going to give it our all. I know it’s my and Sanam’s last year, and we want this team championship more than anything.”