ATHENS – The men’s and women’s tennis teams at UGA find themselves in a conflicted state right out of Charles Dickens. These should be the best of times for Georgia. And while it’s not necessarily the worst of times, it’s certainly a troubling time as a cloud of controversy hovers over the Dan Magill Tennis Complex and the NCAA tennis championships.
Over the next 10 days, the University of Georgia will be hosting this storied event for the 32nd time in school history. As usual, both UGA men’s and women’s teams are highly-rated participants and considered national-championship contenders. But as the round of 16 commences on Thursday, the Bulldogs will enter amid a police investigation that has the top assistant coaches for the respective programs suspended and with no guarantees that players won’t eventually become embroiled.
“We’re just helping our kids in any way we can to make this a positive tournament,” said men’s tennis coach Manny Diaz, who has been a part of all six of program’s national championships. “It’s a true national championship atmosphere and we’re excited about it.”
Meanwhile, UGA has lost its grip on what was once considered a birthright to host this tournament every year. At one point, this was an annual event in Athens, then semi-annual, then semi-regular. But the NCAA tennis committee recently awarded host sites for the next five years, and Athens was not among them.
That there will be at least a five-year gap and possibly more in Georgia hosting the NCAA Tennis Championships is a travesty in the eyes of many, and not just those loyal to UGA. Tuesday night the 30 teams that have traveled here from near and far were feted by their host families, as has been the tradition since Dan Magill established it as such in the 1970s.
Nobody does Southern hospitality quite like Georgia at NCAA tournament time.
“I’ve already voiced my displeasure to the powers that be,” said Southern Cal head coach Peter Smith, who has participated as both a coach and a player. “This is the best place to host it and they should take a look at that. Atlanta’s a great tennis community and Athens, Ga., and UGA deserve the right to host it as often as possible. It’s just the best place, it’s got the best atmosphere, it’s got the best town and it has one of the best facilities in the country. It’s a shame.”
On the court, it has been a relatively down year for the men’s team. UGA is ranked No. 12 in the nation and seeded 13th for this tournament. Though they won both the SEC regular-season and tournament championships this year – their 27th and 28th conference titles in Diaz’s 29 seasons as head coach – the Bulldogs (20-7) will be decided underdogs in Thursday’s 4 p.m. match against fourth-seeded Southern Cal. The Trojans (27-5) trounced Georgia 4-0 when they met in the SEC/Pac-12 Challenge back in February in Gainesville, Fla.
“We kind of hobbled off the court because they beat us so badly,” Diaz said. “But I think we’re a better team now and we’re hoping we have a really good match.”
Georgia will hobble onto the court this time. Junior Paul Oosterbaan, the No. 6 singles player, has been shut down for the season and underwent surgery in New York on Tuesday for a wrist injury. Nathan Ponwith, who plays both No. 1 singles and doubles for the Bulldogs, is hampered by but will play with Achilles tendinitis.
Georgia’s fifth-ranked women’s team (19-5) will take on a 12th-seeded Pepperdine team it beat 4-1 earlier this season. But the Waves (23-4) were playing then without their No. 1 player, Luisa Stefani.
“Every match is a new match and whether you’ve beaten a team once or twice or three times, every day’s a new day,” said Georgia coach Jeff Wallace, who has led the Lady Dogs to five national titles. “It’s the NCAA Tournament, so everyone’s going to be bringing it.”
There is optimism in both Georgia locker rooms, as there should be with their record of success in this tournament, particularly while hosting. But any high hopes remain blanketed by the cloud of a fully-active police investigation into the alleged theft of prescription medication by persons associated with the tennis program.
“My heart goes out to everyone involved,” USC’s Smith said. “The timing couldn’t be worst. I know those people. They’re friends and they’re good people. So I just hope it all works out for everybody.”