By Jeff White
ATHENS, Ga. — His opponent’s shot settled into the net, and University of Virginia senior Drew Courtney leaped in triumph. A few feet away, Brian Boland pumped his fist, his joy mixed with fatigue.
“That’s a long night,” said Boland, UVa’s hyper-successful men’s tennis coach.
A match that began outdoors around 6 p.m. Monday finally ended — indoors — at 12:14 a.m. Tuesday, when Courtney defeated Pepperdine’s Mousheg Hovhannisyan 7-6(3), 6-2 at No. 4 singles.
“It feels awesome,” Courtney said. “We got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re going to savor this for all of about 25 seconds and then get back to work tonight, go back and rehab and get ready for tomorrow.”
By that point, of course, the “tomorrow” of which Courtney was speaking was really “today.” At 5 p.m. Tuesday, third-seeded UVa (29-1) will face top-seeded Southern California (32-1) for the NCAA championship — outdoors at the University of Georgia’s Dan Magill Tennis Center, weather permitting.
The match can be viewed live on-line at NCAA.com.
“One more,” Boland said after accepting congratulations on Virginia’s 4-1 victory over Pepperdine. “One more.”
That USC is UVa’s nemesis in this sport has been well-established. The Trojans, who are seeking their fourth consecutive NCAA crown, eliminated the Wahoos in the 2009 quarterfinals, in the 2010 semifinals and in last year’s final.
“We’ve had some great matches with them,” Boland said.
Courtney couldn’t be happier about the Cavaliers’ draw this year, and he’s not alone. There’s no question which team Boland’s players would most like to beat to give Virginia its first NCAA team title in this sport.
“SC,” Courtney said. “No doubt. It’s been three tough years. This is my fourth year. We’re a different team this year. I think we’ll come out and give it a good shot and have some fun and embrace the moment.”
And Boland’s position?
“We’re just trying to win our first national championship,” he said. “I’m not really focused on who we play against.”
In the other men’s semifinal in Athens, USC defeated fourth-seeded UCLA 4-1. That match also ended indoors, and it was after 11 p.m. Monday when the Trojans finished off their crosstown rivals.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a big difference with what they had to go through,” Boland said. “UCLA pushed them hard as well. That was a great match.”
The semifinals started around the same time Monday evening, both outdoors. But a thunderstorm arrived about 7:45 p.m., and NCAA officials, after checking the radar, decided against trying to finish the matches outdoors. So all four teams moved into a nearby indoor facility that has four courts.
Two were set aside for Trojans and Bruins, the other two for ‘Hoos and Waves.
“I compliment the NCAA for how they handled this,” Boland said. “I thought it was fair for all the teams involved. To play one [semifinal] first and then possibly have one of us out here till 2, 3 in the morning would have been a really unfair situation. But right now I think it’s even, and we go in and play hard [Tuesday night].”
After Boland got word that the matches were moving indoors, his message to his players was straightforward: Let’s go play.
“We’ve been a team that I think has a great deal of discipline,” Boland said later, “and we’ve dealt with adversity all year, and whatever the circumstances are, we just get out there and we give it our best, and they adjusted well and worked hard throughout the match. There was never a letdown, from what I could see, from Pepperdine or Virginia.”
It was hot and humid inside Georgia’s indoor facility, and the 20-some members of the UVa band who had made the trip to Athens, and who provided spirited support outdoors, weren’t permitted to play. But the ‘Hoos got plenty of encouragement from a raucous crowd that included former stars Somdev Devvarman, Sanam Singh and Michael Shabaz.
“Come on, DC!” fans yelled as Courtney took control in the second set of his singles match.
Courtney played on a broken foot in most of last year’s NCAA tournament. He’s healthy again and supremely fit, a combination that has produced impressive results.
“I’m so happy for him,” Boland said. “This guy’s worked so hard. He’s done everything right. He’s been one of the best leaders Virginia tennis has ever had. He’s in the best shape of his life. He’s loving the opportunity to compete in a Virginia uniform in this last go around, particularly after what happened last year.”
Courtney said: “I couldn’t be more pleased. This whole team’s been dedicated the whole season, making commitments like never before. So hard work’s paying off, and it’s definitely fun to be out here.”
In doubles, Courtney plays No. 1 with junior Jarmere Jenkins. They were leading their Pepperdine opponents 8-7 when, at No. 3, sophomore Alex Domijan and freshman Mitchell Frank won 8-4 to secure the doubles point for UVa.
At No. 2 doubles, junior Julen Uriguen and sophomore Justin Shane had already prevailed 8-4. After a short break, the singles matches began, and each was still in the first set when Mother Nature intervened.
Indoors, UVa got victories from Domijan at No. 2 singles and Frank at No. 3 before Courtney won to end seventh-seeded Pepperdine’s 24-match winning streak.
To help build toughness in his players, Boland likes to put them in situations that make them uncomfortable. The semifinals brought a “great deal of discomfort, I think, for both teams, and give credit to Pepperdine,” he said. “They fought hard. It was a great match, and certainly we were well-tested.”
When the match ended, Courtney stayed on the court long enough to field a few questions from reporters. Then he and his teammates were hustled back to the team hotel to eat, rehydrate, rehab and, finally, sleep.
USC faces a similar challenge with the quick turnaround, but its coach, Peter Smith, didn’t sound concerned late Monday night.
“We might have legs that are tired, we might have arms that are tired, we might have minds that are tired,” Smith said, “but I can tell you one thing — the USC Trojans’ hearts are not tired. We’ll be there. We’ll be ready to go.”
Thunderstorms are possible again Tuesday, which means the NCAA final could end up indoors. The ‘Hoos have won four of the past five ITA national indoor championships.
“I do not care where we play, and I mean that,” Boland said. “We’re looking forward to playing for a national championship [Tuesday], and whatever the circumstances are, we’ll leave it all on the court.”