By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even over a phone line, the pain and disappointment were unmistakable in Brian Boland’s voice.
Less than an hour earlier, the tennis team that Boland has led to unprecedented heights at the University of Virginia had lost for the first time this season. The defeat came in the championship match of the NCAA men’s tournament at Stanford, Calif., where top-seeded UVa fell 4-3 to No. 2 seed Southern California.
After falling behind 3-0, Virginia had rallied to tie the match. But at No. 3 singles, Daniel Nguyen edged UVa senior Sanam Singh 6-4 in the third set, and suddenly a magical season was over for Boland’s team, the first from the ACC to play for an NCAA title.
The Trojans (27-2) celebrated their third straight NCAA championship. The Wahoos (34-1), top-seeded for the fourth consecutive year, were left to deal with another agonizing postseason defeat.
“That’s part of competing,” Boland said Tuesday night. “I guess it’s only going to make us stronger down the road.”
“These are the type of situations that make people strong. I’ve always said that you don’t learn about people when things go well. You learn about people when times are tough. It’ll take a couple days — if not a lot longer, a couple weeks — to deal with this, but again, you just learn to bounce back in life.
“All credit to USC. They’ve won three in a row, and we just keep trying.”
The Trojans encountered less adversity than UVa en route to the championship match. The ‘Hoos whipped Illinois in the round of 16, but they struggled to get past Stanford 4-3 in the quarterfinals, and Ohio State tested them before falling 4-2 in the semifinals.
Against both Stanford and Ohio State, Singh had clinched the victory for Virginia with a win at No. 3 singles. His teammates and coaches have immense faith in him, and Singh’s play in the second set, which he won 6-0, seemed to bode well for the Cavaliers’ chances of completing an incredible comeback against USC.
“I kind of had all the momentum going into the third set,” Singh told reporters at Stanford.
Nguyen stopped that momentum, however, and Singh soon found himself trailing 5-2. Singh fought back to 5-4, but a pair of net cords in the final game went Nguyen’s way, and Singh was unable to hold serve.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘Just hang in there, just hang in there,’ ” Singh said. “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Boland said: “He just fell a little bit short, but that’s part of sports, and I’m certainly proud of the team. They left it on the court.”
Singh, a senior, is one of five UVa players who will compete in the NCAA singles tournament, along with classmate Michael Shabaz, freshman Alex Domijan, sophomore Jarmere Jenkins and junior Drew Courtney. But the NCAA final was the last team match as a Cavalier for Singh, who on Tuesday received the ITA/Rafael Osuna Sportsmanship Award.
“He’s done so much for Virginia, and I think what speaks volumes about Sanam, much more than winning or losing a tennis match, is first and foremost he’s been a consistent performer for us for four years,” Boland said. “But more than that, he’s been one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. He’s incredibly unselfish. He’s a national sportsmanship award winner for good reason, and I’m just really proud of him, and it was an honor and a blessing to have the opportunity to coach him and the rest of the guys this year.
“We’ll rebound and keep our heads up, and see what the next step is.”
Under Boland, UVa has traditionally dominated in doubles, but the Trojans took that pivotal point Tuesday.
“That’s a credit to USC,” Boland said. “They played some great doubles, especially at 2 and 3. They have some horses at 2 and 3 doubles that really execute well, move well. They’re very aggressive. They do some things better than we do on the doubles court.
“We may have better tennis players on the doubles court, but they have better doubles players. And that was the difference in that situation. Better doubles players are going to beat better tennis players most of the time, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the fact that we have skilled doubles players. We just didn’t match them today. I think they were the slight favorite in that point, and it showed.”
Knowing that the Trojans might win the doubles point, Boland still believed UVa could take four of the six singles matches and win its first NCAA championship. The ‘Hoos nearly did.
“That’s sports,” Boland said. “I guess at the end of the day, if you’re not willing to suffer the pain that you go through when you lose in a big moment like this, you can’t do it, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity and been blessed to coach at Virginia as long as I have.”
UVa’s winners Tuesday were Domijan at No. 2 singles, Jenkins at No. 4, and sophomore Julen Uriguen at No. 6. Shabaz lost at No. 1, Singh at No. 3, and freshman Justin Shane at No. 5.
A healthy Courtney, who has been almost unbeatable at No. 5 singles, might have been the difference between winning and losing against USC. Courtney re-injured the stress fracture in his right foot May 14 against Wake Forest, in UVa’s second-round match, and didn’t play singles for the remainder of the NCAA team tournament.
“At the end of the day, whether Drew played or whether or not Justin played, USC’s No. 5 guy was a great player, and I think either player would have had their hands full,” Boland said. “I don’t know if that would have made the difference or not. But at the end of the day, I’m not going to second-guess myself. I made a decision to stay with what got us there.
“There’s not much left to say. I had the option to play him today. I chose not to.”