ATHENS – Having presided every one of what is now 33 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for Georgia, women’s tennis coach Jeff Wallace was asked if heading to Orlando this week to compete in the championship rounds seemed like old hat for him.
Without missing a beat, Wallace pointed to the wide-brimmed, black sun hat atop his head – power G on the front — and deadpanned, “this is a new hat.”
Wallace is representative of his top-seeded and No. 2-ranked squad as it prepares for its Elite Eight matchup with Vanderbilt (19-7) on Friday. The Bulldogs (26-1) are upbeat, loose and confident as they make yet another run at a national championship.
Wallace’s latest team might be his best one. It stood undefeated before finally blinking against a very good South Carolina team in the SEC Tournament finals. Since the calendar flipped to spring the Bulldogs have logged 12 4-0 victories.
“Every year’s different; it’s hard to do comparisons,” Wallace said of how this group stacks up against his all-time best teams. “This has been a special year, when you win a national indoor title and you go undefeated in the regular season and win the SEC. But our goal all year has been to play our best tennis this coming weekend and that’s what we’re striving for.”
Next in the pathway is Vanderbilt, a team Georgia already has beaten twice. The latest was a 4-1 drubbing in the final regular-season match. But the Commodores pushed them to 4-3 in the National Indoor semifinals back in early February in Seattle. The Bulldogs were ranked 5 to Vandy’s No. 2 at the time.
“I think it’s a good thing,” junior Elena Christofi said of having to play Vandy a third time. “They know us but we also know them. We have an idea about what to expect and can share strategies with our teammates about who they face. We know what’s worked and we can do it again.”
In an epic comeback, Christofi rallied from an 0-5 third-set deficit and fought off two match points to defeat Emily Smith 7-5 for Georgia to clinch that match. She is 15-2 on Court 5 this season.
Christofi and sophomore Vivian Wolff are undefeated (16-0) at No. 2 doubles for the Bulldogs. Not coincidentally, Georgia has won 21 of 26 doubles points this season.
From top to bottom the Bulldogs are a well-balanced squad of youthful talent and grizzled experience. No. 2-ranked Katarina Jokic leads the at No. 1 singles. Freshmen Lourdes Carle (23-6) and Meg Kowalski (23-1) have come in and dominated the competition at Nos. 3 and 6, respectively. Christofi and fellow junior Marta Gonzalez (ranked 19th in singles and playing No. 2) provide leadership.
All but the two freshmen were around last year when the Bulldogs were bounced at this point. They lost to Stanford, the eventual NCAA champion.
“The vibe is really, really positive,” Christofi said. “All of us are super pumped and excited to go to Orlando. Being in the Elite 8 is what we’ve worked for. Now we have an opportunity to show our work.”
Just to add to the positivity, the Bulldogs added another team member this week. Head coach Drake Bernstein and his wife Cassidy had their first child Monday night, Brody, a boy.
So it was with great optimism that Georgia boarded its flight for Orlando Tuesday. But this will be new territory. The Bulldogs, like many other teams, are making their first visit to the expansive USTA National Training Center in Lake Nona. The 100-court facility was thought to be a factor in the NCAA’s decision to skip over Athens as an NCAA Championship site when bids were accepted through 2022.
“It’s going to be a new experience for me and for all of us,” Wallace said. “I’ll tell you what I think when I get back. I’m very, very biased. There’s no better place than ours and we’d love to get the NCAA Tournament back here and that’s our goal and hope.”