May 16, 2017
By John Frierson
UGAAA Staff Writer
(This is the first in a series of stories running over the next two weeks as we look back at the NCAA tournament in Athens, which first arrived 45 years ago.)
When Georgia won the 1985 NCAA men’s tennis championship, it was the breakthrough moment for the up-and-coming program, cracking the powerful stronghold of the California trio of Stanford, USC and UCLA. It also secured the coveted missing piece in the incredible career of the Bulldogs’ legendary coach, Dan Magill.
It remains a team and a championship worthy of much attention and discussion. But so does the title won two years later, though it has historically received a bit less attention.
Now, as the NCAA Championships return to Athens 30 years after the 1987 team gave the Bulldogs two national championships in three years, we take a look back at a special squad and a special season.
“After winning the NCAAs, I don’t really remember anything else from the whole season,” said Stephen Enochs, who won the clinching match at No. 2 singles. “I remember Coach Magill used to play Anne Murray over the loudspeaker; I remember that. How can you forget that? Who does that?”
“We had a lot of young players; we had reloaded a good bit, but we were pretty young,” said Georgia head coach Manuel Diaz, who was Magill’s assistant on the 1985 and ’87 title teams before taking over the program in 1989.
You can’t win your second title in three years without winning your first, and two of the key players on the 1985 team were vital in 1987, as well: Philip Johnson and Trey Carter.
Johnson was carried off court No. 5 after clinching the win as a sophomore; two years later, he was the Dogs’ rock at No. 1 all season and one of the top players in the country. A freshman playing No. 6 in 1985, Carter picked up a critical win in the finals. As a veteran junior playing No. 4, he delivered again. In both finals, the Dogs beat UCLA, 5-1.
“I think having Trey and Philip on that team, with the experience of doing it before, they were instrumental in guiding us through the tournament,” said T.J. Middleton, who earned a win at No. 6 singles in the final.
Georgia had a really, really good team in 1987, it had lost just three times all season, but it’s fair to say nobody was picking the Dogs to win the national title. That’s because USC was the best team in the country and undefeated; the Trojans were 32-0 going into their matchup with the Dogs in the semifinals.
The Dogs were the No. 4 seed, beating Clemson 5-2 in the second round and getting some revenge on the Tigers who had handed Georgia two of its three losses in the regular season. The Dogs beat Pepperdine 5-3 in the quarterfinals, setting up the semifinal showdown against the Trojans.
Does Georgia beat USC without 5,000 barking Dogs fans going nuts from start to finish? Nobody will ever know. We do know that the fans were in full throat that day and they had a lot to cheer about as Georgia pulled out a 5-4 victory.
The semifinal came down to No. 2 doubles — singles was played first back then — Middleton and Carter against USC’s Luke Jensen and Eric Amend.
“I just remember Trey coming back to me, we were up a set and 5-3, I believe, and it was my serve, with new balls,” Middleton said. “He just looked right at me and he says, ‘I want you to hit this serve as hard as you can.’
“He said that to me and I remember bouncing the ball, and the whole stadium was absolutely quiet. I could hear the ball bouncing and echoing throughout the stadium. And I struck that first serve and Luke Jensen hit it in the bottom of the net, and they all just went wild, and it was going to be over from there.”
A few points later it was, and Georgia was back in the finals against the Bruins, who were going after their program’s 16th NCAA title. And like in 1985, the Dogs wouldn’t need doubles, which made Enochs happy.
“I remember, I was not in the doubles lineup, so it gave me extra incentive to be involved in winning this thing,” he said. “I was excited about the final, but I didn’t think we were favored, even. I thought we were 50-50.”
Georgia quickly went up 1-0 after UCLA’s No. 1 player, Dan Nahirney suffered a knee injury while leading Johnson 6-4, 2-1. Then came the wins by Carter and Middleton on Nos. 4 and 6; UCLA got its win at No. 5, where Patrick Galbraith beat Georgia’s Mike Morrison in three sets.
All that remained were Enochs against Buff Farrow at No. 2 and Georgia’s John Boytim versus Tim Trigueiro at No. 3. They ended close together and the same way.
“They wound up winning the last two points in the national championship match,” Diaz said. “And both were recipients of double faults on match points from UCLA — back to back and within a few seconds of each other.
“Trigueiro double faults on match point and the place goes wild. Buff Farrow is about to serve, gets so tight and double faults on match point. Boom, boom, done.”
A double fault on match point in the NCAA finals is maybe the tennis equivalent of a pitcher walking in the winning run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, in game seven of the World Series. You want to celebrate, but it’s hard not to feel for the other guy.
“So he double faults and everyone’s going bananas on the court, but I know I felt bad for him,” Enochs said, “so I really did not celebrate at all for quite a long time after everyone started running on the court.”
In a way it was fitting for Enochs to clinch the championship, because two years earlier he had attended the 1985 tournament, which also featured a dramatic semifinal win over USC — and that experience ultimately led to him choosing to attend Georgia.
“That was the first time I realized that tennis could have that much excitement,” he said. “I had no idea that tennis could be that exciting. That was incredible.”
As was the run to the 1987 title, which Middleton said feels like it only happened yesterday: “When we talk about it now I still get tingles and feel the same way of being in the moment.”
A moment to remember and savor, for another 30 years and beyond.
John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.