April 20, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Eduardo Segura may have found occasion Sunday afternoon to think about a nearing end, but at no point did wistful thinking enter his picture. Dialing in with blistering forehands and smoking, pinpoint serves, Georgia Tech’s sole senior went out hot as the Yellow Jackets’ soul.
He would look left or right to teammates, depending on which side of the net he was working, to check in on them, to nurture with words as a big brother might.
Yet there was little time with Duke — the nation’s No. 8 team — in the Ken Byers Tennis Complex to chill in review of a college career spent far from home.
No, a splendid ending was available, but it would have to be taken. The Blue Devils (21-5, 8-4 ACC) would not bestow parting gifts, and the role of catalyst had to be filled if the Yellow Jackets were to seize Eddie’s day.
Nevermind that the Spaniard’s last home match was afoot. Tech was bruised after five straight losses to nationally ranked ACC teams, and an opportunity for salve was at hand.
So Eddie the Energy Man made himself at home one last time. He went for it, and boy, did Segura grab it.
He and countryman Carlos Benito clinched the doubles point for the Jackets with an 8-7 (7-2) win over Duke’s Josh Levine and Jason Tahir on court No. 1, and then Segura moved the Jackets up 2-0 with a machine-like 6-2, 6-3 singles win on court No. 6 over Blue Devil Daniel McCall.
Benito finally held off Duke’s Raphael Hemmeler, 7-6 (13-11), 3-6, 6-3, on court No. 2 to trigger a delirious celebration befitting a raucous capacity crowd.
The Jackets banked their biggest upset win at least since Kenny Thorne became head coach in 1998-’99, never before toppling a higher-ranked squad.
This was the Swan of songs for Tech’s only senior, and Segura had sent the Jackets on their way while creating for himself one hell of a sendoff by which to best remember his time in a foreign land.
“It was in the back of my mind, that it was my last match here, but I just wanted to get the point for the team and try to get the `W,’ ” he recalled after a team match that lasted three hours and 33 minutes. “We were getting so close during the season, and we knew this would come. We just didn’t know when.
“We were just ready to go, anxious to go against Duke. It turned out to be a great atmosphere, loud. It was a perfect ending.”
Even with their warts, college athletics continue to mark life in many ways.
When Segura came to the United States more than four years ago with scarce command of English and searching for a future, he wasn’t looking for a perfect ending. He was looking for a scholarship.
That and so much more have been found.
A new language came to be commanded, a finance degree will be won in a few weeks, life-long friendships have been formed, and a boy has learned that he can lead as a man even so very far from Madrid.
“We started the day and said, `We’re doing this for Eddie.’ Basically, the boys rallied around Eddie,” Thorne said. “He arrived as a kid and he’s leaving a big kid. He’s one of the most passionate guys that you’ll ever be around.
“We’ve had more people talk about him, and it keeps coming out that he cares more about this team than anybody else . . . He’s a guy you hear on the court all the time. He can be six courts away, but you’re hearing him. He’s a lot of the energy for our team.”
There was more than standard juice in the joint Sunday afternoon. For sake of weather, Tech’s regular-season finale was moved indoors. Save perhaps home indoor matches against Georgia, it likely has never been as loud in the Complex.
Capturing that critical doubles point, a sore spot of late, was large.
Having split matches on courts 2 and 3 with a win by Christopher Eubanks/Michael Kay and a loss by Nathan Rakitt/Casey Kay, it came down to the Spaniards.
Beginning last fall, Segura and Benito built a record of 17-7 together through a March 20 win at Boston College. They were ranked as high as No. 20.
Then, they lost six straight ACC tilts, and did not play together in Friday’s loss to No. 15 North Carolina. Benito played with Casey Kay, and Segura did not play doubles at all.
“Eddie’s shoulder is a little sore, and we hadn’t won the doubles point so we were changing up a little bit,” Thorne said. “It was mainly because he was struggling serving. He was fine [Sunday].”
Yes, yes, he was.
Segura and Benito threw caution away, and played without thinking.
“We started out very good this season getting the doubles point, and then we struggled a little bit with confidence after losing those tough matches,” Segura said. “We went out there and just hit balls like we know.”
Thorne couldn’t help but enjoy as the Spaniards re-connected in timely fashion.
“When they do well, Eddie covers the net extremely well, and Carlos can take advantage of that with his serve,” the coach explained. “Eddie’s kind of the energy, and Carlos is the low-key, steady guy. He kind of needs the environment.
“I think when both of those guys know what they do well, they play really well. Sometimes, they try to do too much and that’s when they make their mistakes.”
There were few, if any, mistakes in the tiebreaker, which Segura and Benito won 7-2 to stake the Jackets to that 1-0 lead.
From there, Tech won the first set on courts 1, 2, 5 and 6 with Eubanks, Benito, Cole Fiegel and Segura.
Eubanks, ranked No. 62 would fall, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6 to No. 51 Tahir at No. 1. That left the match score 2-2.
No first set was more critical than Benito’s.
He fought off four set points before winning a 24-point tiebreaker. Given that he dropped the second set, 3-6, to the 59th-ranked Hemmeler, it was enormous.
Fiegel staked the Jackets to a 3-2 edge with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Duke’s T.J. Pura – the subject of a documentary aired on ESPN about the process of growing through youth tennis that was made by his late father before his sudden death.
After the Blue Devils squared the score with a win at No. 3 by Bruno Semenzato over Rakitt, Benito was left to be the ultimate tiebreaker, one way or the other.
That match turned hard in the middle of the final set.
Tied at two games each, matters looked bleak with Benito serving at 0-40.
As Thorne said, the sophomore from Madrid may sometimes, “need that environment.”
The Tennis Complex and Benito came through.
He won three straight points to thunderous applause and voice, the third with an ace, before facing two more break points. He survived the second with a big overhand smash near the net, and captured the game when Hemmeler sent a forehand long.
Trailing 2-3, Hemmeler was poised to win the next game on serve, but Benito rallied from 15-40 and broke when Hemmeler sailed another forehand deep.
The players held serve from there, but not without nervous moments.
Benito, leading 5-3, moved from 0-30 on serve to win four straight points with a pair of aces – one of them disputed by Hemmeler – a service winner and finally another overhand smash to clinch.
With that, the environment was ratified.
“I loved it. Down on the court, this is loud,” Thorne said. “You compact all the fans . . . this intimate setting, it got really loud. Our guys love playing in front of a crowd, and they do better. I think it did help.
“We knew they weren’t going to give it to us; you’ve got to beat them. You’ve got to take it to them and play aggressive. He did exactly that. The third set, coming back in that 0-40 game was really key.”
So, too, was Segura, whose goal is to put his Tech degree in finance to work.
“I don’t know exactly yet, but the plan is to go back to Spain,” he said. “I have a couple job offers with sports marketing corporations.”
There is work to be done first.
Tech will play Notre Dame Thursday in the ACC Tournament, in Cary, N.C. The Jackets (12-11, 4-8 ACC) may also qualify for the NCAA tournament. Their win over Duke, and the strength of a brutal schedule, may push them into the bracket.
Segura’s turn at the wheel is nearly finished. His time has been more than he and perhaps Thorne might have imagined.
“There is a recruiting agency in Spain that told me about him, and I went down to Florida and watched him play. He was down 3-0 and came back and won it, had this huge forehand . . . needed work in some other areas,” the coach said.
“I knew that early on that he takes losses really, really hard. It hurts him, and I can relate to that so I think we bonded right there. He cares a lot about people, and you can’t help but love that.”
Segura has relished his run.
“I came to the United States to find a scholarship. I went down to Tampa to learn English,” he said. “While there, I was trying to find schools. At the end, I had Miami, San Diego State and Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech stood out with academics, great coaches and facilities. It was the best option for me.”
His “home” finale was perfect.
“It was a great college tennis match. To have it come down to your senior, Eddie Segura . . . he wins doubles, and is the catalyst. He gets off the court in singles first,” Thorne said. “You couldn’t have written it up any better.”
Segura will not leave Tech with records, nor a battery of accolades.
Yet he has put together a senior season (27-14 in singles, 17-13 in doubles) that has by far been the finest in a career where his overall records are 58-63 and 55-53, respectively.
He leads the Jackets in singles wins this season, and will graduate as fulfilled as any Tech tennis player and the owner of a splendid memory from his final athletic moment on The Flats.
“It’s been up and down, a lot of tough moments, but it’s been awesome as well,” he said. “It went by really, really fast. It flew by. I didn’t know English very well so that was a huge factor, but I’m pretty extroverted so it didn’t take long to get used to it.
“I came here as a kid. I was so immature. I didn’t know what was going on. Now, I feel like I’m a grown man ready to take on the world.”