By Jeff White
CARY, N.C. — For the top-ranked men’s team in college tennis, winning is not always as easy as the scores of its matches might suggest. In fact, say UVa coach Brian Boland and his players, winning often isn’t easy at all.
History will show that unbeaten Virginia secured its fifth consecutive ACC championship Sunday by blanking third-seeded Duke 4-0. The Cavaliers’ victory — their 29th of the season overall and 77th consecutive against ACC competition — came a day after they beat No. 5 seed Georgia Tech 4-0 and two days after they shut out ninth-seeded Maryland 4-0 in the quarterfinals.
But the overflow crowd at the Cary Tennis Park did not witness a rout Sunday. In the singles matches, top-seeded UVa won two first-set tiebreakers. Moreover, Virginia was not leading in any of the matches that were stopped after freshman phenom Alex Domijian, at No. 2 singles, clinched the championship for the Wahoos. Two were tied after two sets, and UVa was trailing in the third.
“Obviously the score was 4-love,” senior Sanam Singh said, “but if one of those [tie-breakers] goes against us, then it’s a battle.”
Boland agreed. “The final score is not indicative of how close this match was,” he said, and that was the case Friday and Saturday, too.
“I think that unless you’re here, you don’t understand how competitive and exciting team tennis is at the college level,” Boland said. “It’s the momentum changes. There’s always action, and the doubles point is always tight. That doubles point was phenomenal, and anybody who was here, even non-tennis fans, would appreciate such great athletes going at it, toe to toe.
“When we played Maryland, which is the No. 9 seed, we had an absolute battle with the doubles point. The doubles point brings momentum. It’s not to say that we can’t lose the doubles point and come back and still have success. But for anyone who thinks that this is easy, or that we don’t appreciate every championship and respect every championship just as much, they’re fooling themselves.”
The ‘Hoos have only two seniors — Singh and Michael Shabaz — and they shared the tournament’s MVP award.
“It’s awesome,” Singh said. “We’ve played four years together, we’ve lived four years together. We’ve gone through everything together for the past four years. We’re best friends, and it’s awesome that we get to share it.”
A few minutes later, Shabaz used the same adjective when asked about the MVP awards.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Obviously me and Sanam have invested a lot of time and a lot of hard work into this program. We’re great friends. For us to go out and finish two matches here in our last ACC tournament, it means a lot to us.”
At No. 3 singles, Singh pushed Virginia’s lead to 2-0 by whipping Duke’s Chris Mengel 6-3, 6-3.
Singh is ranked No. 36 nationally. Shabaz is No. 5, and at No. 1 singles he contributed a crucial point. Shabaz had never beaten seventh-ranked Henrique Cunha before Sunday, but on this day he dominated, winning 7-5, 6-1 to give UVa a 3-0 lead.
“Our matches in the past have come down to a few points,” Shabaz said, “and he had the edge on me. Today I knew I had to go in and try to play on my terms a little more, dictate. Obviously it feels good, because that’s part of tennis, the confidence factor. But it was just another match. I took it as another match, and we’re happy and excited as a team.”
The ACC tournament was Domijan’s first, and he noted that “the overall intensity of the teams is definitely higher than in the regular season.”
Shabaz and Singh can attest to that.
“Right now it’s kind of like you’re still living in the moment, so you understand but really don’t completely grasp the meaning behind it,” Shabaz said. “Obviously there’s so much depth in the ACC, it’s not easy to win every single match. To go flawless in the ACC for four years, that’s pretty special, and that’s something I think we’re going to look back on 10 years down the road and appreciate a lot more.”
Boland said: “I’m just as excited for this group of kids as I was when we first won our championship. The only difference is, the first one’s always a little special, because you overcome that hump, and that’s our next challenge now with the outdoor championship.”
The 64-team field for the NCAA tournament will be announced May 3. The Cavaliers, who have won four consecutive ITA national indoor titles, are seeking the NCAA crown that has eluded them during Boland’s illustrious tenure.
To break through this year would be “a storybook ending” for the seniors, Singh acknowledged, “but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We just need to go back and take maybe a few days off and then start preparing for NCAAs, because everyone knows it’s a long road to the title, and we just need to take it match by match.”
Singh struggled with stomach problems late in the regular season, and he was clearly laboring April 15 in a loss to Clemson’s Kevin Galloway. Singh was much closer to 100 percent at the ACC tournament.
“Time obviously heals everything,” he said. “I’m still dealing with it, but I feel a lot more energetic, and physically obviously I feel a lot better. Hopefully these two or three weeks before NCAAs help my recovery more, and I can be full strength for NCAAs.”
After the trophy presentation Sunday, Boland walked off the court, eager to see his wife, Becky, and their children on this Easter Sunday.
He wore the satisfied smile of a coach whose team had again done something special. Boland’s record at UVa may be a staggering 269-44, but he doesn’t take championships for granted.
“It never gets old,” Boland said. “I love to take a group of young men and watch them mature and grow and deal with adversity and go through the ups and downs, and then to have this incredibly gratifying feeling. That’s why I keep coaching, and that’s what I love.”