Three different cities. Three National Championships. The Virginia men’s tennis team had finally broken through and kicked the proverbial monkey off its back in recent seasons to become the nation’s dominant program.
But Athens? Athens had been the dream-wrecking host for UVA’s title aspirations in four different seasons. Georgia stopped the Hoos in 2007, while Southern Cal toppled them in the Final Four in 2010, 2012 in the title match, and 2014. No other location led to as much heartache.
So it was fitting that in Brian Boland’s final match at the head of the tennis program, the Cavaliers kicked the Athens’ curse to the curb. Virginia knocked out North Carolina on Tuesday, 4-2, to claim its third straight National Championship and the fourth title in the last five years. UVA’s previous wins came against UCLA in Illinois, Oklahoma in Texas, and Oklahoma in Oklahoma.
”I love Athens now,” Boland said. “Athens has been tough on us over the years with some really close matches. We’ve been through a lot of adversity here and we talked about that when we came to Athens this year and adversity struck with the change in weather and the things you have to go through.”
Boland finishes his Virginia tenure with 453 wins, 4 National Championships, 8 Final Fours, 6 ITA Team Indoor National Championships, and 12 ACC titles. Over the past three championship seasons, he led the Hoos to a 123-8 record. That’s a sizzling 93.9% winning percentage. UVA also tallied 140 straight ACC wins, a decade-long streak that represented the longest string in any sport in league history.
The title-clinching victory against the Tar Heels to round out those accomplishments featured some tense moments, but ultimately the Cavaliers had too much firepower and too much motivation. The Hoos grabbed the doubles point with a 6-1 win at No. 3 with Collin Altamirano and J.C. Aragone, but needed a narrow 7-6 (7-5) tiebreaker win at No. 2 from Thai-Son Kwiatkowski and Alexander Ritschard to get the point since UNC prevailed at No. 1.
With the match being played indoors after a 3-hour delay, UVA carried that 1-0 advantage into the first four singles matches to be played on the four indoor courts. That’s where Ritschard immediately ratcheted up the pressure on the underdog Tar Heels. He blitzed Ronnie Schneider 6-1, 6-3 at No. 1 singles to push his team out to a 2-0 lead.
“Actually, coach had already talked about how in the past here in Athens there had been rain and had prepared us mentally for the possibility of it,” Ritschard. “In the moment when it happened, I was trying to rush but then I depressurized, relaxed with the guys and got some fuel in me. We waited it out and I was ready to go from the first point. It all panned out well for us.”
“I consider Alexander Ritschard one of the most improved players over the past year,” Boland said. “He kept plugging away and was so resilient. He lost a close one against arguably the best player in the country [Monday] against Ohio State [No. 2 Mikael Torpegaard] in a really close match with a tiebreaker in the third. We had a few talks over the last day but we just kept believing in him. I am just so proud of him and deserves so much credit for what he has done for the team and the program. He has been so selfless in his time here and he has grown so much, as have the rest of the players.”
While William Blumberg pulled Carolina to 2-1 with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Kwiatkowski at No. 2 singles, the shrunken margin proved short-lived. Altamirano sprinted to a 6-3, 6-1 victory against Simon Soendergaard at No. 4 singles to quickly move UVA within one point of the championship with a 3-1 lead.
That meant the courts were now clear for Aragone at No. 5 singles and Henrik Wiersholm at No. 6 to try to clinch the championship for the Cavaliers. The Tar Heels picked up a little steam with a Robert Kelly victory over Carl Soderlund at No. 3 singles by a 6-2, 6-4 score, but the bottom of the singles stack snuffed out that spark in short order.
Both Aragone and Wiersholm won their first set before Aragone set off UVA’s third straight title celebration with a 7-6 (7-2), 6-2 win against Jack Murray. Among two exciting points in that second set were a seeing-eye backhand lob for a winner and a sharp-angle crosscourt backhand to end the match.
“First I would like to congratulate the University of Virginia. They had a fantastic year, and they were the better team today, so congratulations to them,” UNC coach Sam Paul said. “I think the doubles point was a key thing for us, a couple points here or there. We couldn’t get a lot of momentum when we went into singles, and we just couldn’t ace out players in a couple different spots, but I am so proud of my senior class.”
Ultimately, Virginia’s run to a third straight crown came in tidy fashion. The No. 2 seed rolled to three straight 4-0 matches to open the tournament against Monmouth, Columbia, and Florida. The Hoos then picked up a 4-1 triumph against Texas to make the Final Four. They finished it off by eliminating Ohio State and UNC by 4-2 scores. Impressively in a clear sign of the program’s depth, every position in the lineup contributed at least one win to the title run.
The Cavaliers defeated the Tar Heels for the fourth time this season in the finale. Virginia also downed Carolina in the ITA Team Indoor tourney semifinals (4-0), the ACC regular season (4-3), and the ACC Tournament Semifinals (4-3).
“I want to congratulate the University of North Carolina on an unbelievable match and a great season,” Boland said. “They competed so hard. To beat a team as good as them four times in the same season is so difficult. We have so much respect for them. I am really proud of my players. They deserve everything they get. They work hard every single day and play for something bigger than themselves. I am so proud to be part of it and I appreciate what they have done.”