May 18, 2017
A special look back, as Manny Diaz wins his first NCAA Championship as head coach at Georgia.
By John Frierson
UGAAA Staff Writer
(In this series we are taking a look back at memorable NCAA Championships moments in Athens since the event first arrived 45 years ago.)
The 1999 NCAA Men's Tennis Championships was not a tournament that went as planned: not the draw, not the weather, not the scheduled bedtimes for players, coaches and fans.
Looking back recently, Manuel Diaz said of the four NCAA titles the Bulldogs have won since he's been head coach, the championship in 1999 "was the most unlikely one."
It was also the most dramatic, and one of the most compelling tournaments ever played in Athens.
By its lofty standards Georgia had put together a good season going into the tournament, with a record of 20-5, but there was little reason entering the NCAAs to think the team was about to go on a remarkable run.
"We were seeded 10th and we should have been.," said Jack Frierson, Georgia's assistant coach in 1999 and, yes, my brother.
Georgia opened the NCAAs with a 4-2 win over Georgia State, but then came a tough second-round opponent in Washington.
The Huskies led the Dogs 3-2, with only matches at Nos. 1 and 3 singles remaining. And it wasn't looking good for Georgia. Hisham Hemeda was down a break in the third set at No. 1 to Robert Kendrick, while Chad Carlson was in the same hole at No. 3.
Both fought their way out of trouble.
Hemeda, and Diaz's face absolutely lights up while retelling what happened, was down two match points to Kendrick, who went on to be ranked as high as No. 69 in the world.
"Hisham hit those two winners, one of them on a return and one of them a running forehand on the dead run, a passing shot," Diaz recalled.
Hemeda eventually broke Kendrick and went on to win in a tiebreaker. Moments later, Carlson won at No. 3 after being down 4-2 in the third set. As the team celebrated the victory, in a dog pile of course, Diaz said he had something akin to a premonition.
"I literally saw them celebrating and I went, like, we just won the national championship," he said. "In the back of my mind I saw that."
If that was going to happen, Georgia had a lot more obstacles to overcome. The Dogs did have a slightly easier go of it in the round of 16, blanking Texas, the No. 7 seed, 4-0 (though the match was closer than the shutout indicates).
Multiple rain delays during Georgia's quarterfinal match against Baylor, so the tight match was still going well past midnight. And the Dogs again had to rally from match point down.
"It looked like they had three pro players out there and they were killing us," Frierson said of the Bears' Nos. 4-6 players.
In fact, it wasn't until around 2 a.m. that Adam Seri, at No. 5, with still about 200 fans watching well past their bedtimes on a Sunday night, including then-director of athletics Vince Dooley, fought off a match point and closed out his win to send the Bulldogs to the semifinals.
"That team was full of personalities ... and a team that probably lacked a little discipline, but they more than made up for it with heart," Diaz said. "It was a lot of fun."
The fun continued with a 4-1 win over Ole Miss in the semis, sending the Dogs into yet another finals match against UCLA, the No. 1 seed in 1999. In Georgia's two previous national championships, in 1985 and '87, the Dogs beat the Bruins 5-1. This one would not be a rout.
There was something else at stake, too. The legend, Dan Magill, was Georgia's head coach for the first two NCAA titles, with Diaz as the very valuable assistant. Since Diaz had taken over in 1989, Georgia had been to five finals and lost all five.
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame UCLA player Billy Martin had taken over the Bruins, replacing another legend, Glenn Bassett, and had lost in his only trip to the finals.
"Billy and I talked before the match about how one of us was going to get the monkey off their back," Diaz said. "I had been to the finals four or five times already and I think he had been to the finals once or twice, and both of us were succeeding legends."
Did Diaz feel pressure to finally win his first title?
"I kind of felt like I wanted to just get it off my back [laughs], not because of the pressure, just for all the guys that had gotten to the finals and not succeeded," he said. "You can't help but think you should have had one or two, but you can never have those back."
It was another nail-biter, come-from-behind match for the Bulldogs, who again proved they were up to the task. Georgia won the doubles point, and hadn't lost all season when doing so, but then UCLA won the first set in five of the six singles matches.
UCLA led 3-2 and was a game away from taking the title, but Georgia's Michael Lang won a three-setter at No. 6, staying alive by rallying from 5-2 down in the second set to force the third. That made the remaining match, at No. 4, winner take all.
Joey Pitts dropped the first set but had taken command in the second and closed things out with a backhand crosscourt winner.
The celebration from the Bulldogs and the crowd of more than 5,200 was fitting for what Georgia had done: in six matches they had three 4-3 wins and had survived being down team match points in all three.
It was a dramatic ending to a spectacularly dramatic run to the championship.
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.