UGA tennis falls to a greater power in dramatic semifinal loss

Georgia coach Manuel Diaz keeps a close watch on Nathan Ponwith’s match against North Carolina at No. 1 singles on Monday. (Steven Colquitt/UGA)

ATHENS — The urge is to hate that guy on the other side of the net. The guttural reaction of the fan base is to deride and mock and ridicule the opponent. That’s what North Carolina’s Blaine “Bo” Boyden was feeling and experiencing Monday from the raucous UGA crowd, whose noisy wrath was increased exponentially enclosed inside the tin roof of Lindsey Hopkins Indoor Courts.

Boyden

But they probably didn’t find out until afterward — and maybe not until now — why Boyden was so demonstrative about every point he won down the stretch. And, to be clear, he won pretty much every important one when it mattered. The Tar Heels’ tall and lanky sophomore bested Georgia’s Robert Loeb 6-3 in a dramatic third set that sent the Bulldogs’ packing and North Carolina to the NCAA Championship finals.

We’ll get to Georgia in a minute. The Bulldogs did their fans proud, overcoming a minefield of obstacles and adversity and upsetting opponents right-and-left before coming a few inches from pulling off one more and losing 4-3 Monday.

But this was one of those cases where we must first tip our cap to the opponent before patting the home team on the back.

You see, what it was that Boyden was chirping and chanting and pumping his fist about at the end of every point in the decisive final match was not “I’m great” and “look at me,” as it might’ve seemed. He was shouting “Boyden Strong.” Over and over and over.

Those were the instructions he received via text from his mother during the four-hour rain delay that interrupted Monday’s semifinal between these two teams. At the time, things weren’t going well for Boyden. He’d just had his serve broken in the first game of third set when weather halted the match at 12:58 p.m.

“After the rain delay I was feeling a little pressure. I feel like I’d dropped my level a little bit there,” Boyden said. “She texted me and said, ‘I know I’m not there right now but I’m cheering you on and we’re Boyden strong.’ It meant a lot, and I just kept saying it throughout the whole set.”

Boyden was choking up as he recounted his mother’s text. Pamela Boyden is back home in a Raleigh hospital fighting for her life against breast cancer. It’s a well known story around Chapel Hill and, really, the entire college tennis community. If you looked closely you’d see Boyden’s fellow Tar Heels wearing “Boyden Strong” wristbands. And you might even notice it scribbled in Sharpie on the shoes of Georgia’s own Walker Duncan.

Even Loeb, Boyden’s vanquished singles opponent, is well aware of the battle behind the battle. But it didn’t make the freshman from Hilton Head feel any better about what had just happened. Indeed, wrapped in a towel and still dripping sweat by the ounces, Loeb could barely speak afterward.

“He’s one of my friends,” Loeb said of Boyden, looking down at the floor and not at the bank of microphones before him. “I grew up playing with him. So I’m praying him and praying for his family. He’s a good guy. But we’re playing for our teammates out there. It was a good match.”

It was a match for the ages, one that might’ve gone Georgia’s way had Mother Nature not decided to mess with fate. The Bulldogs seemed to be following the script it had established earlier for this tournament. That is, to drop the doubles point, then rally like mad in singles, particularly at those positions that man the lower courts at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.

Trailing 3-1 quickly, Georgia’s Nathan Ponwith had gotten it to 3-2 with a gutty performance at No. 1. Then Zielienski and Loeb had each pulled ahead a break when a lightning strike was spotted eight miles away via radar and NCAA officials halted the match. Rain soon followed and the teams adjourned to their respective locker rooms for a protracted delay.

They tried to come back to the Henry Field Stadium Courts at 4 p.m. This is, after all, the OUTDOOR Tennis Championships. But another drizzle came almost as soon as they began to warm up, slicking up the courts yet again. So the decision was made to move indoors. And no matter what anybody might say, it’s different in there.

It’s tight quarters, kind of dimly lit, the courts play fast and, with 800 fans packed in, it’s loud. It might’ve messed a little more with the freshman Loeb than the sophomore Boyden. But who knows?

“Yesterday it worked in our favor, today it didn’t,” Georgia coach Manny Diaz said. “Maybe (Loeb) got a little nervous. I don’t know if he’d confess or not. It’s just a matter of experience. He’s a freshman and he’s out there on the biggest stage in college tennis.”

Therein lies the positive takeaway for the Bulldogs. Georgia doesn’t lose anybody from this team. Not a soul. There are no seniors. So the thinking is the Bulldogs will be back.

And there’s no reason to think they won’t be. Heck, they never really leave. This year’s run is a perfect example.

The season began with a ravaging stretch of injuries and the first five-match losing streak that anybody can remember in school history. But Georgia rallied to win yet another SEC championship — two, in fact, with both the regular-season and tournament titles — and then got on a roll here in the NCAAs. The wins over Southern Cal and UCLA in the championship rounds avenged losses during that five-loss streak. And a win over UNC Monday would’ve been yet another.

All the barking for a time made that ongoing investigation that embroiled their associate head coach a mere footnote. At least for a few days anyway.

Now the attention turns back to the future, and the Bulldogs are mostly feeling good about that.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” Diaz said. “They fought a great fight, not only today but this entire tournament. It’s been a great ride and I think the future is very bright.”

It is for Carolina as well. They’ll face a Virginia team Tuesday they’ve played three other times this season, losing twice in the regular season but winning in the ACC tournament.

The Cavs should be warned to get things done early if they’re to win again. If they let it get down to a third set at No. 6 singles, they’re liable to feel the wrath Bo Boyden.

He’s Boyden Strong, as we all know now.

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