Georgia's Wayne Montgomery celebrates his win-clinching victory against USC. (Photo by Steven Colquitt)
May 18, 2017
By John Frierson
UGAAA Staff Writer
About 30 minutes after helping the Georgia men's tennis team pull off a great and thrilling win Thursday afternoon at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, sophomore Jan Zielinski put it very well when he said: "That's why you come to Georgia."
It could be said another way, too: that's why you come watch the NCAA Men's and Women's Tennis Championships.
Thursday was the first day of the championships, which first came to Athens 45 years ago, and the men's round of 16 was up first -- the women get their turn Friday. Eight matches were played and two of them were absolute masterpieces, as exciting as just about any that have been played here.
The 13-seeded Bulldogs took the court in Henry Feild Stadium at 4 p.m., against fourth-seeded USC: a matchup of two NCAA heavyweights -- 21 all-time titles for the Trojans, six for the Dogs -- who more typically have met in the semifinals or the final.
The match was all anyone could ask for as Georgia closed out the final two singles matches, both three-setters, within 20 seconds of each other and knocked off the Trojans, 4-3.
"They got us in a couple third sets," USC coach Peter Smith said. "They played great and they were tough down the stretch, and they get to move on and we don't."
The two storied programs had a tough act to follow, too, because in the previous match on the Henry Feild courts, the No. 3 seed, Ohio State, won a marathon match against Oklahoma, the 14 seed. That match went as deep as one can go, with the Buckeyes prevailing in a third-set tiebreaker in the deciding match.
For the Bulldogs, they had to win four singles matches after losing the doubles point. At that point, Georgia coach Manuel Diaz said, "we knew we had a fighting chance. But it was going to take all that we had -- indeed it did."
Georgia got off to a strong start in singles, winning four first sets and getting convincing, straight-set wins by Walker Duncan at No. 5 and Emil Reinberg at No. 3. USC's Brandon Holt beat Georgia's Nathan Ponwith in straight sets at No. 1, so with three matches left the score was even, 2-2.
The Trojans took a 3-2 lead after Riley Smith knocked off Robert Loeb in three sets at No. 6, forcing the Dogs to win the final two matches to keep their season alive. Still on the court were Zielinski at No. 4 and Wayne Montgomery at No. 2, both in the deciding set.
Montgomery won the first four games of the third to take control against Nick Crystal and Zielinski got up two early breaks against Jack Jaede. Neither Trojan went quietly, getting one break back.
Zielinski said he got tight when serving for the match at 5-2, double faulting a couple of times and missing some routine shots. But with Jaede serving down 5-3, Zielinski hit one winner after another in the final game, firing a backhand winner up the line on quadruple match point.
"I was just trying to play ball after ball, not thinking about the last game, and it worked out. I played an awesome game at 5-3 and I'm happy about it," Zielinski said.
Just moments after Zielinski's tying win, with Montgomery up 5-4 and Crystal serving at 40-all, Crystal hit a backhand into the net, sending the Dogs into a quarterfinal match Saturday against UCLA.
Diaz looked after the match like he'd played a couple of three-setters, but before the Dogs took the court he looked about as relaxed and confident as you'll ever see him. About 30 minutes before the match began he even made a quick trip to say hello to the large crowd of former Bulldogs that were tailgating outside the ITA Hall of Fame.
"Relaxed? You have to be relaxed around your players," he said. "You have to be very positive and you have to be ... I have to feel confident in order for them to feel confident. I felt confident that it was going to be a tough match, but I (also) felt confident that we could handle it."
Georgia's win may have been the match of the day, certainly for the large crowd that was in the stands, though it was likely a photo finish with Ohio State's victory. It will take a lot for another match in the championships to top either.
The Buckeyes and Sooners went back and forth, with high-level tennis happening all over the place. With the match tied 3-all and only a tight duel at No. 2 singles still going, it was great theater. Ohio State coach Ty Tucker, a former Buckeyes All-American, anxiously gnawed on a pen cap as he watched the conclusion.
"I'll tell you, I've seen a lot of tennis played when it's 3-all and it's usually not played like it was out there today," Tucker said. "It's usually two guys pushing, hoping they don't miss, but those two guys hit the ball. Probably a lot more than I would have done; I'm trying to hide anywhere I can hide."
In the end, Ohio State freshman JJ Wolf won a third-set tiebreaker against Sooners senior Andrew Harris, sending the Buckeyes into a quarterfinal matchup against TCU.
Wolf, who graduated high school early to join the Buckeyes this spring, didn't play like someone who should have just attended senior prom. Playing with poise, confidence and tenacity, and monster serves and forehands, the freshman won with all eyes on him.
Harris had saved a match point earlier in the set, but there was nothing he could do on the second. Wolf closed out the match with an ace out wide in the deuce court and then dropped to the court, where the Buckeyes piled on top.
"I can't even remember half the match, it's all just a blur right now," Wolf said. "I was just trying to get that next point for my team."
And he delivered, as did so many players in a pair of matches that will be hard to top over the next few days.
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.