ATHENS – Georgia athletics needs something to feel good about. An unlikely pair of tennis players are trying to make that happen.
That Robert Loeb and Jan Zielinski have made their way into the NCAA doubles championship finals today shouldn’t come as a surprise. They were, after all, the No. 1-ranked doubles team in America coming into this event.
But just that fact that they are playing together at all this season is sort of a happy accident. They’re together mainly because junior Paul Oosterbaan has been injured. It was Oosterbaan who was supposed to be paired with Zielinski. They won 19 of 28 matches playing together in 2016.
But then Oosterbaan ended up having issues with his wrist. The decision was made to shut him down a while, and Zielinski started playing with Walker Duncan. They went 19-2 and won the Southern Intercollegiates. Never one to rest on laurels, however, coach Manuel Diaz kept experimenting with lineups and paired Zielinski with Loeb.
Diaz liked what he saw and decided to play them in the MLK Invitational against Georgia Tech’s top team. They won 6-2, achieved a national ranking of 54 and have been on a steady ascent since.
Loeb, a wide-eyed freshman out of Hilton Head, capsulizes the beautiful spontaneity of the whole development with his ingenuous comments after Sunday’s straight sets win over a TCU team to reach the finals.
“I was just trying to crack the lineup,” he said candidly. “I didn’t expect this, so I’m really excited.”
It’s another example of that mysterious brilliance Diaz seems orchestrate almost every season. The Bulldogs’ coach of 29 season simply sees buttons that others don’t, then pushes them at the exact right moment.
Of course, this he downplays.
“I honestly didn’t know that they were going to gel as quickly and as well and complement each other like they have done,” Diaz said Sunday. “Right off the bat, though, I saw they had something kind of special together.”
It has been a rollercoaster year for Georgia tennis. It started with a five-loss losing streak in February, then the Bulldogs rebounded to win their 40th and 41st SEC team titles. They lost their associate head coach to a still-ongoing police investigation on the eve of the NCAA championships, yet they managed to rally together and make a run into semifinals of the team championship. Then they lost the chance to play for the team title only when Loeb couldn’t sustain a service-break advantage in the third set at No. 6 singles against North Carolina.
And now here are the Bulldogs again, set to take center stage and try to secure one of those gold-plated NCAA trophies that have been so elusive in this year in particular. There have been other years when Georgia stacked those things like cordwood, but not this one.
Which is what makes the appearance of this unlikely duo, one from the coast of South Carolina and the other from the coast of Poland, such a pleasant surprise.
“We didn’t expect to make it to the finals at the beginning of the season,” Zielinski said, only to be cut off mid-sentence by his coach.
“I did!” Diaz exclaimed loudly.
And so it is. They’ll face Andrew Harris and Spencer Papa of Oklahoma.
Georgia played them before and beat them, 6-4, 6-4 in a fall tournament. But that was Zielinski with Duncan.
This has to go even better. Right?