Feb. 12, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
I was guilty of a double dose of poor anticipation Saturday. I underestimated dramatically how fascinating and engaging a college tennis match can be, and missed horribly in pegging my way to Philips Arena after Georgia Tech beat Georgia in men’s tennis, 4-3, for the first time in 23 years.
That was a sweet, sweet way to spend nearly five-and-a-half hours.
It was made all the more poetic by senior Dean O’Brien’s rally from a third-set deficit of 3-5 to stave off two match points on the way to winning at No. 6 singles to clinch the whole thing. That happened when all other matches were complete, and the place was alternately quite as moments of silent reflection in church and then loud as a rock concert.
Give me great competition, in a rivalry setting, in an environment that buzzes with a backstory or two . . . and I’m still – after all these years (24 or so) – jittery for hours afterward.
Saturday was a big deal in the Bill Moore Tennis Center because the No. 11-ranked Bulldogs were visiting the No. 21 Yellow Jackets, and because Tech honored its tennis All-Americans between the doubles matches and the singles matches while also honoring the women’s 2007 NCAA tournament championship team as well.
The place was busting at the seams, as athletics director Dan Radakovich, myself and others estimated there were 500 or so people jammed into that tiny building. At Georgia, that’s no big deal. There’s a fabulous facility in Athens, and Tech has aspirations – serious aspirations – of closing that gap in accommodations. Perhaps Saturday will help grow the Jackets’ bandbox.
Fund raising sits a tad short to make a major renovation happen, and the goals Saturday were both to beat the vaunted Bulldogs for the first time since 1988 and impress upon “friends of Georgia Tech tennis” the reality that something special is rooted on the Flats.
The programs of men’s coach Kenny Thorne and women’s coach Bryan Shelton are arcing upward, the women slightly more notably for that national title, Amanda McDowell’s NCAA singles championship a year later, and multiple ACC titles – including last spring, when the Jackets were decided under, uh, dogs.
There was nowhere for me to sit, or stand, Saturday, so I ended up in Shelton’s office with some Tech officials overlooking the three indoor courts (that’s why the match took so long; premier facilities have more courts, and updated locker rooms, and more rest rooms).
The bleachers were rocking with what I would say was a 60-40 split of Tech-Georgia fans.
All did not start well, as Tech lost the doubles point by dropping matches at the first and third spots. Frankly, that was contrary to what Thorne anticipated.
So he wasn’t thrilled between the doubles and singles sessions, when he wanted to gather his guys in the locker room only to find it locked as the ceremonies took place and the Georgia squad left the building.
Thorne blew into Shelton’s office, a composed man more rattled that I’ve seen him, looking for a key.
The rest of us, his wife included, stay quiet as he blew out.
It’s less than common to win a college tennis match between two top teams when the doubles point is lost, but Thorne told his players to consider what Guillermo Gomez and O’Brien had just done while losing 8-6 at No. 3.
They were getting smoked, trailing 0-6, before they knew what hit them. But they scrapped their tails off from there to make it competitive.
“That is what I talked about,” said Thorne, a senior on the last Tech team to beat Georgia. “That match just showed what we were made of, coming back.” Trailing 1-0, things got a little rascally.
Playing on court one, closest to the fans, Gomez was not comfortable with the way Georgia fans were chirping when he was serving from their end of the stands. After conversation with a Georgia assistant, and the chair umpire (or judge, or whatever that person is called), the situation abated.
Then, while losing a 2-0 lead in the first set to fall behind, he was still irked.
There was this persistent thumping on the windows above the courts, from the office of women’s assistant Alison Silverio.
Turns out it was the Tech women doing the thumping as a form of cheering. I think Shelton was even in there.
That stopped, and Gomez rolled to a 7-5, 6-3 win over Georgia’s Wil Spencer to even the match at 2-2 after teammate Juan Spir had upset No. 13-ranked Javier Garrapiz 6-3, 6-3 at No. 2, and Eliot Potvin fell at No. 3.
Kevin King won the first set at No. 4, but dropped the next two to chirpy Georgia senior Drake Bernstein, who was whooping and hollering, “Let’s go Bulldogs,” and other less PC material at nearly every point he won.
Tech trailed 3-2.
The Jackets were soon winning at No. 5 as Magin Ortiga won his first set in a tiebreaker, but trailing at No. 6 where O’Brien had fallen 4-6 in the first set to Georgia’s Ignacio Taboada — an Atlantan who transferred from Miami.
The Jackets needed wins in both spots.
Ortiga downed Hernus Pieters, 6-3, in their next set to even the team score at 3-3. O’Brien, a South African who had played just one match this spring, sure didn’t play as if under pressure.
Early in his scrum, when Thorne and assistant Aljosa Piric were busy aside courts two and three, Gomez took a seat aside O’Brien’s court and played the role of coach to the point he frequently clasped his hands behind his back while watching – just like Thorne.
“Guillermo was just telling me that this guy has been serving great, focus on returning to the middle of the court and keep going,” O’Brien said. “Over time he is going to break down and just believe in yourself, believe that you have it.”
I believe that’s pretty much how it unfolded.
With a remarkably distinct back-and-forth thunder rising from both crowds – and the teammates of O’Brien and Taboada – at the appropriate points, they went at each other.
It was not encouraging when, at 3-3 in the third set, O’Brien was receiving serve with a 40-0 advantage only to lose the game.
Then, he fell behind 3-5.
He fought off two match points and was fiercely courageous – non-plussed, to use a sportshack term – in doing it to push himself and the Jackets to the edge of a beautiful scene.
“It is hard to put in words what heart these guys had today being down two team match points, and not a doubt in anybody’s mind,” Thorne said. “Dean O’Brien hit a second serve as hard as I have seen anyone hit a second serve down the T, down a match point, and comes up and puts away a forehand. You can get knocked down but you just get back up.”
Up 6-5, but serving 0-15, O’Brien smoked a serve to the right sideline. Taboada whiffed, missing completely. Tech fans roared. Georgia fans hissed.
The next serve was returned into the net. O’Brien 30-15.
He followed the next serve to net, and punched Taboda’s return crosscourt before anything could be done. O’Brien 40-15.
The place was half hopping. The other half was frozen.
Another Taboada return to the net, and before you could wrap your head around everything (and after a brief handshaking processional), a couple Tech players were dumping ice water all over Thorne.
Then, senior Miguel Muguruza, who didn’t play Saturday, jumped on Thorne.
With the coach literally carrying his player, lest Thorne risk injury if he did not, the Jackets jumped. O’Brien was engulfed by teammates, and a few fans, much as his countrymen were in 1995 when South Africa won the rugby World Cup in the first year it was able to participate.
This was not really equatable with the story behind “Invictus” but there was a Hollywood feel. Saturday was just the second match of the spring for O’Brien, who battles Serbian junior Dusan Miljevic for playing time.
“I cannot explain the feeling that I have right now,” O’Brien said. “It is indescribable. This team has been through a lot of stuff and to be the person to get the win, this was for the alumni, the old boys, for everyone, my teammates and my coach.”
A day earlier, Thorne apologized for rushing an interview we’d had because he had to attend a memorial service for a member of the Tech athletics department.
No apology necessary, but I owe Thorne a couple; sorry, Kenny, for ratting out your fit in Shelton’s office. And I wish I could’ve stuck around to do interviews rather than depend on great quotes sent to me by Betsy Devine, an intern in the Sports Information Department.
I had to leave to cover a Hawks game, which was made miserable by 71,000 fans driving to the Georgia Dome for a, “Monster Jam.”
Really, though, wasn’t it worth it?
You found a key, and perhaps Tech tennis leapt upward, too. That was a monster match.
“It is a goal every year to beat Georgia,” the Tech coach said. “These guys deserved it. They have worked so hard. It is one of those matches where you are going to be kicking yourself if you weren’t here.
“These seniors deserve it. They have put so much time and effort into their games and getting this team to gel and this is the fruition of it. All of the seniors need to hold their heads high. They took out Georgia in their senior year and that is something to be said.”
No kidding; I just “said” about 1,600 words about it and I’m supposed to be covering the Hawks. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.