CHARLOTTESVILLE — By 5:15 p.m. Sunday, UVa and Texas were tied 3-3, and all the attention at the Snyder Tennis Center was focused on one court. The No. 4 singles match between Li Xi and Noel Scott would determine which team saw its season ended and which team advanced to the NCAA women’s tournament’s third round in Urbana, Ill.
In a similar situation April 27 in Cary, N.C., with a berth in the ACC tournament final on the line, Xi had faltered. After building a 4-1 lead in the third and final set, she ended up losing to Florida State’s Amy Sargeant. Not again, Xi vowed Sunday, even after falling behind 4-1 in the third set.
“I told myself, `I’m not going to lose this match. I’m just going to fight to the end,’ ” said Xi, a native of China whose name is pronounced “Chili.”
Xi, a junior, dropped the first set. In the second set, she twice fought off match point in the tiebreaker before prevailing 9-7. In the third set, Xi trailed 4-1. But she rallied to force another tiebreaker, and this time she blitzed Scott, winning all seven points to clinch the Cavaliers’ victory.
“I didn’t think about score,” Xi said. “I just played.”
Virginia (19-9), the No. 14 seed in the 64-team tournament, will face a familiar opponent, No. 3 seed Texas A&M (23-3), in the round of 16. The teams are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. (Eastern) on Friday at the Kahn Outdoor Tennis Complex on the University of Illinois campus.
The Aggies have defeated the Wahoos twice this season, winning 4-1 on Feb. 10 in Charlottesville, at the ITA National Team Indoors, and 5-2 on March 13 in College Station, Texas.
“I’d rather play them in Illinois in the round of 16, I’m so happy about that,” UVa coach Mark Guilbeau said. “There’s nothing stopping us from playing a great, great match. We are good in really close, tough matches, because that’s the nature of our season, and [the players] truly have embraced that. I’d love to go there and win 4-0, but if we can get to 3-all, 4-1 down in the third, and play a tiebreaker 45 minutes later, we’ll take it.”
This will be the Cavaliers’ third straight appearance in the round of 16. UVais one of five schools whose men’s and women’s teams have advanced to the third round for the third straight season. The others are California, Duke, Georgia and UCLA.
“I’m so happy for the kids,” Guilbeau said. “That’s really what you think about. So happy that they get to go and play another match and specifically make the round of 16. We’re going to prepare, we’re going to be ready and have a great time going after it.”
Virginia lost the doubles point to the Longhorns (18-11), which made its challenge that much greater Sunday. The `Hoos pulled even at 1-1 when senior Erin Vierra won 6-1, 6-3 at No. 5 singles. UVa’s other winners were junior Caryssa Peretz at No. 6, senior Hana Tomljanovic at No. 3 and, of course, Xi, whose teammates mobbed her at match’s end.
“She played the best tennis of her entire career, maybe, in this moment,” Guilbeau said.
Tomljanovic’s victory was nearly as dramatic as Xi’s. Tomljanovic won her first set with Texas’ Elizabeth Begley 6-2, but lost the second by the same score and then found herself trailing 4-1 in the third.
A courtside meeting with Guilbeau and volunteer assistant Emily Fraser got her refocused, Tomljanovic said. “We just kind of took a deep breath and made the adjustments that needed to be made, and I came through.”
Still, nothing came easily for Tomljanovic. In the third-set tiebreaker, Begley won the first three points. “That was a rough start,” Tomljanovic acknowledged, but she won seven of the next eight points to clinch the victory, which gave the Cavaliers a 3-2 lead.
It didn’t last long. At No. 1 singles, Aeriel Ellis completed her straight-set victory over UVa freshman Julia Elbaba, and the match was tied 3-3.
The pressure was on Xi, and she didn’t flinch. The cheers of Virginia’s fans gave her energy and confidence as her match went on.
“It’s just a neat moment to have that fan support and see the kids really embrace it, and also kind of share in it, pull it out of the fans, and vice versa,” Guilbeau said. “As Li Xi and Hana both said, that was a big part of why they performed so well. It takes special kids to be able to do that in the big moments.”
This has been a trying season for Xi, who went home to China in December to see her family and didn’t return to Charlottesville until January. She rarely picked up a racket while she was away.
“She was honest about it,” Guilbeau said. “The one thing that I wish, and I know that she’s now learned from, is that she would have done a little more physical, just running, training that way [in China]. And she didn’t do that.”
And so Xi, whose singles record is 22-22, has struggled for much of this season. But she was at her best Sunday, and for “her to be able to play that level, and look just so solid out there in every way — physically, emotionally, mentally — that’s a huge step, that’s a huge statement,” Guilbeau said.
“I’ll also say that it’s kind of a full circle. I think you guys know that Julia and [freshman Stephanie Nauta] have had to do a lot of winning this year, and that’s really awesome. Today they fought their brains out, but neither of them got the win. It’s no shame in that, but full circle, meaning that the rest of the group, everyone — everyone — kind of gave a piece and got it done.”
The loss to FSU in the ACC tournament was disappointing, but afterward Guilbeau said he told his players they would handle that situation better the next time.
“We maybe didn’t get the prize we wanted at ACCs, but the only way we can choose to handle it is to be hungrier and be that much more determined, and I tell you, these kids have done it,” he said. “And to do it after losing the doubles point [to Texas], that’s strong.”