Sanam Singh cruised to a 6-0, 6-0 victory in singles action.
With all eyes on lacrosse in Charlottesville, the fact that the best college tennis team in the nation began a quest for its first team NCAA Championship went largely unnoticed.
On the other hand, the fans that didn’t show up to watch Virginia’s opening-round match against Navy in the NCAA Tournament didn’t miss anything extraordinary. The Cavaliers – the top seed in the Tournament – predictably stomped the Midshipmen 4-0 at Snyder Tennis Center. It was a familiar sight for the Hoos, who took care of Navy in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament with similar ease.
“I thought we played really well,” UVa coach Brian Boland said. “I think we’re as fresh as we’ve ever been, and I don’t think we could be in a better place as a team. I’m extremely confident.”
Of course, it is the end of the tournament that Virginia is hoping will go differently than prior seasons. This is the third straight year that the Cavaliers have entered the NCAA Tournament as the top seed, and UVa is the first team to accomplish that feat since USC from 1991-94; but the team title has eluded the Hoos. Last season, they fell to USC in the quarterfinals; the year before, they were shocked by Georgia in the semifinals for their first loss of the season. Virginia also made the semis in 2007, but was again bounced by Georgia.
Appropriately named Navy coach John Officer has a unique perspective on the Cavaliers, having seen them at the same point in the season two years in a row. Officer said he believes that this year’s Virginia squad is more potent than last year’s. This sentiment comes in spite of the fact that Virginia entered the 2009 Tournament undefeated, whereas this year’s team has one loss on its resume, albeit early in the season (to Kentucky on Feb. 6).
“They have more weapons [than last year],” Officer said. “The thing that they hurt you with that nobody in the country does as well as they do is, their first serves are tremendous. They all have big first serves, and there are a couple of guys that their first serves are big but not huge, but they place it well. And they return serve well. The two most important parts of the game are serve and return, and they get A-pluses in both of those areas.”
Officer added: “They’ve got three doubles teams that would play No. 1 anywhere else. They put a lot of pressure on you in doubles. They return serve tremendously well – if you lined it up and videotaped them on the return of serve, they very rarely miss returns and they go for broke as well. So, it’s sort of a tough combination.”
Virginia is clearly in a different class than Navy, who, despite holding a 16-13 overall record, received an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning the Patriot League Championship. The doubles point took all of 33 minutes, as the tandems of Houston Barrick/Sanam Singh and Lee Singer/Jarmere Jenkins both won their matches 8-1. The No. 14-ranked duo of Michael Shabaz and Drew Courtney was also well on its way to a convincing victory when the match was discontinued with the score 6-2.
Michael Shabaz and the Hoos face Wake Forest in the second round on Sunday.
“The chemistry’s there,” Boland said. “The guys have a lot of energy, they love playing together. Without question, I think that’s as good as any doubles point we’ve ever put on the court at Virginia.”
Singles was more of the same. No player lost more than three games in a set, and more often than not the Cavaliers held their opponents to one victorious game or none. Singh was the most dominant, as he put away Marcus Rebersak 6-0, 6-0. Singh also showed the most flair, hitting one dazzling return after another; following one scorching crosscourt winner on game point, Rebersak even gave Singh a fist bump as the two crossed paths heading to their benches.
The only scare of the match came on court three in singles, and it had nothing to do with Navy. The Midshipmen’s Anderson Walls served to Jenkins, and the ball smacked the tape on the net before dropping over; and in men’s college tennis, of course, the ball remains live. Jenkins sprinted forward for the ball, but in his attempt to slide to a stop, he lost his balance and wiped out at the net. The freshman required a medical timeout for an apparent hip injury, but he quickly returned to action and defeated Walls 6-1, 6-1.
“I guess I popped something, or something,” Jenkins said. “It turned out to be nothing, though.”
“It’s one of those things that, I think Jarmere over time will let that one go,” Boland said. “I think it’s all instinct for him in a sense that, the guy’s a fighter, and he always believes he can get to a ball. And in many cases, he’s right regardless. He’s one of the fastest guys on the planet.”
It is difficult to gauge the state of a team in a match like this one, where one team is so clearly superior to the other. But it was apparent that Virginia put to rest Boland’s concern about the three-week layoff heading into the NCAA Tournament. Jenkins said that the Cavaliers were cramming in six hours of practice in the week after winning the ACC Championship, before backing off the last two weeks during the final exam period.
“I think we approached this the right way,” Boland said. “We took a few days off after ACCs, we pushed really hard for 10 or 12 days in there where we really extended ourselves, and then we started tapering down earlier than we ever have. I think we’re really mentally fresh, we’re playing some of the best tennis we’ve played, and I still think that our best tennis is in front of us.”
Jarmere Jenkins recovered from a fall to win his singles match 6-1, 6-1.
Boland also had said that he believed his team was capable of better tennis in spite of going undefeated through ACC play. Shabaz agreed, and said that the match against Navy was a step in the right direction.
“We’ve had some moments – I think especially at the [ITA] National [Team] Indoor tournament – where as a team we put together some really good tennis,” Shabaz said. “I think through the ACC matches, it’s been a little bit of a different story, but I think it’s tough to keep that at such a high level day in and day out when you’re playing teams that are gunning for you each and every match. I think the last few weeks we’ve put in a lot of good work, and I think it’s going to pay off down the stretch here.”
The quick match was also beneficial to the Cavaliers in that it buys them more rest as they prepare to play Wake Forest less than 24 hours later, although Boland noted that his team is capable of playing back-to-back matches “at a high level.” The Cavaliers already defeated the Demon Deacons 6-1 on April 11 at Snyder Tennis Center, and if the Hoos come out as they did against Navy, they figure to have a similar result.
After that, the next stop is Athens, Ga., for the final four rounds of the Tournament. A team outdoor championship is about the only accolade missing from Boland’s resume, and the Cavaliers are eager to make it happen this year.
And, now more than ever, some positive publicity would be a breath of fresh air for the Virginia Athletics Department.
“I told [Coach Boland], anything he needs me to do to get this team title, I’m down,” Jenkins said. “If he needs me to guarantee him every single win for the NCAA Tournament, I’ll do that for him.”