By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Living and competing in the shadow of the top-ranked men’s team in college tennis is not always easy.
Under Brian Boland, the UVa men have won five consecutive ACC titles and four straight ITA national team indoor championships, an incredible run that has obscured the strides made by Mark Guilbeau’s women.
“It’s tough, but they seem to handle it well,” Boland said Saturday night. “They’re always supportive. They come to our matches. We work well together. Let’s just hope that they take advantage of the opportunity they have in front of them.”
In the first round of the NCAA women’s tournament, 11th-seeded Virginia blanked Army 4-0 on Saturday afternoon at the Boyd Tinsley Courts at the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
At 1 p.m. Sunday, UVa (19-7) will meet ACC rival NC State (16-8) at the Snyder Tennis Center, weather permitting. The Cavaliers already have set a school record for victories in a season. A win over the Wolfpack would send Virginia to the NCAA tourney’s round of 16 for the first time in program history.
“I’m happy for Mark Guilbeau and [assistant coach] Troy Porco, who live and breathe the game of tennis, and they put a lot of time and effort in,” Boland said. “I know they’ve been through a lot of heartache over the last five years trying to get the program where they wanted it to be, and I’m just really excited for them to have this opportunity. We’ve always worked well together, and they have no bigger fan tomorrow in hoping that they succeed.”
The NCAA men’s tournament started Friday, and top-seeded Virginia overwhelmed Sacred Heart 4-0 in the first round at the Snyder Center. That was also supposed to be the site of three matches Saturday: two in the women’s tourney and one in the men’s.
Inclement weather, however, prompted NCAA officials to move Saturday’s matches to the Boar’s Head Sports Club.
“It certainly was disappointing to have to move indoors, to be quite honest, but it is what it is,” Boland said. “We don’t have control over it, and we just have to make the most of it.”
Boland’s team beat ACC foe Wake Forest 4-1 on Saturday to advance to the round of 16 for the eighth year in a row. But the victory may have come at a steep price. At No. 5 singles, UVa junior Drew Courtney was leading 4-3 in the second set when he fell and injured his right foot.
Courtney, who had won the first set 6-1, was in obvious pain and limping noticeably when play resumed. He gritted his way through the match but dropped the second set 6-4 and the third 6-1.
In 2010, Courtney teamed with Michael Shabaz to win the NCAA doubles title, and his singles record as a junior is 22-6.
At his post-match press conference Saturday night, Boland said the extent of Courtney’s injury was not known. But it was clear that Courtney might not be available in Stanford, Calif., where the Wahoos will try to capture their first NCAA title.
UVa (31-0) meets Illinois in the tournament’s third round Thursday. The ‘Hoos have beaten the Fighting Illini twice this season.
“Obviously our biggest concern from the beginning was that we stay healthy, but the great thing about this team is we have tremendous depth,” Boland said. “We’ve played as deep as 10 this year. I certainly wouldn’t want to get negative over a loss of anybody, because of the hard work that we’ve done to create the depth that we have in this program.
“I think we always have a shot, regardless of our situation. We played short-handed this year more than once. We played without two or three players in [some] ACC matches.
“That’s why you play the game, and you deal with the adversity that’s thrown at you, and the teams that can deal with it the best come out on top.”
Virginia dealt with considerable adversity Saturday against Wake, and not only in the form of Courtney’s injury. After winning the doubles point, the Cavaliers collected singles victories from senior Sanam Singh at No. 3 and freshman Alex Domijan at No. 2 to take a 3-0 lead over the Demon Deacons.
Just another UVa romp, right? Not exactly. At No. 4 singles, sophomore Jarmere Jenkins lost the first set and then found himself down 5-1 in the second. A loss was imminent for Courtney at No. 5, freshman Justin Shane dropped the second set after winning the first at No. 6, and Shabaz lost the first set at No. 1.
Shabaz, a senior who’s ranked No. 5 nationally, battled back to win the second set 6-3, but in the third he fell behind Jonathan Wolff 4-2.
Could the Deacons win all four matches for a stunning upset? However unlikely that scenario might have seemed, it was possible. But then the Cavaliers showed their championship mettle.
Shabaz, who had struggled for much of his match, particularly on his first serves, took control when his team needed him most, rallying to win the third set 7-5. Elsewhere, Courtney had lost to Adam Lee, but Shane and Jenkins held third-set leads of 4-1 and 2-1, respectively, when play was stopped.
“Regardless of the situation, I think we would have come through, but it was nice to see Michael close the match out,” Boland said.
“Shabaz has grown up a lot. I look back a few years ago, and that’s probably not something that he would have been able to do. It’s a tribute to his character, his hard work, his perseverance, his willingness to stay composed under pressure.”
Singh was the first Cavalier to finish in singles, so he was able to witness his roommate’s comeback.
“Honestly, I expect that from Michael,” Singh said. “He expects that from me, and we have so much faith in each other on this team. There’s great team chemistry, and we believe that anyone can come back from any situation.
“That’s kind of been the theme the whole year: just fight till the very last ball has been hit. Even though Michael went down 4-2 and the match got tight, I had total faith in Michael that he would come through, and he did in the end and clinched the match for us.”
There was no such drama in the UVa women’s match. The ‘Hoos were expected to blitz Army, and they did so. Now comes a rematch with NC State, which Virginia beat 4-1 early last month, and a chance to make history.
“It’s something we think about, the round of 16,” said UVa junior Emily Fraser, who won 6-1, 6-0 at No. 2 singles Saturday.
“We’ve talked about it since the beginning of the year. Although it’s never happened for us yet, I think we’re ready for it, and we’re prepared for it, but we need to take care of business first [against NC State], obviously, one match at a time. But it’s definitely there, and I think it’s something we can achieve. I think it’s an extra motivation for us.”
This is Guilbeau’s sixth season at Virginia, where his record is 85-62. In four of his first five seasons, the Cavaliers were ousted in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32.
To take another step “would mean a lot,” Guilbeau said Saturday. “Obviously if you accomplish that goal, then you really set yourself amongst the best teams in the country. The idea then is to reproduce that standard and that goal, year in and year out.”