ATHENS — In a year it seems Georgia can’t catch a break, it lost a big one.
The Bulldogs’ best hope for a national championship this year — their No. 1-ranked men’s doubles team — found themselves up a set and up a break in the second set. They led Oklahoma 2-0 and were up 2-1 with Georgia’s Jan Zielinski serving. He lost and essentially, the Bulldogs wouldn’t win again.
The Sooners’ team of Andrew Harris and Spencer Papa won six games in a row to take the second set, then got ahead five match points in the tiebreaker format that the NCAA has utilized since last year. And just like that, Georgia was dispatched and the Sooners claimed their first doubles national championship in school history, 4-6, 6-2, 10-6.
It was over so fast that Loeb, the super-talented freshman from Hilton Head, S.C., was still trying to process it in post-match interviews. He was barely audible when asked to explain what happened.
“We were just kind of feeling pressure the whole time,” said Loeb, who also held down the No. 6 singles spot for the Bulldogs.
And that was the bottom line here Monday. The freshman-sophomore Georgia team was facing a senior-junior Oklahoma squad and that, as they say, made all the difference.
“They’re really experienced,” Zielinski said. “What can I say? They’re a great team, they wanted it, they were better today. We’re just a freshman and a sophomore making it the finals of the NCAAs. I’m really looking forward to next year.”
It’s not like it came cheaply for the Sooners’ team. They came in ranked 15th and were unseeded, then dispatched the No. 4, 2 and 1 seeds on the way to the title.
Down a break in the second set, they simply decided they weren’t losing to the young kids from Georgia.
“We knew it had to come from us,” said Papa, who featured one of the biggest serves in the tournament. “We knew we had to pick it up.”
Said Oklahoma first-year coach Nick Crowell: “We kind of challenged them and said you guys need to get mean.”
So now, Georgia tennis moves into waiting mode. As detailed at the outset of the NCAA Tournament, this is the last time the NCAA Outdoor Tennis Championships will be held here for at least five years. Once an annual event in Athens, then semiannual, the Bulldogs lost out in the recent bid process, which will take the event elsewhere through 2022.
There are a lot of theories why that happened. First and foremost is the sparkling new 100-court facility the USTA built in Orlando, Fla. The NCAA likes to move around the tournament geographically, and that enormous venue will get it twice over the next five years.
There are also theories floating around that Georgia hasn’t done enough with the historic Dan Magill Tennis Complex to keep impressing the NCAA selection committee. Several rainy stretches during the tournament this year exposed the deficiency of having only four indoor courts on which to retreat.
Georgia’s legendary tennis coach Manuel Diaz confidently proclaimed that shortcoming will be addressed before the NCAA’s next bid process resumes around 2019 or so.
“Honestly, when this tournament comes back, I expect we will have 10 indoor courts, a new six-court complex and we’ll keep the four we have,” said the Bulldogs’ coach of 29 years. “It will be, once again, probably the best facility of its kind in the nation.”
Diaz, when asked if he’d been given assurances by UGA’s administration that it will provide the resources to build such a facility, he grinned and laughed. “Yes, that’s been part of the conversation. Assurances? That’d be nice.”
The Georgia fans and tennis community certainly did their part to support the tournament this year. Even with long, extended rain delays marring the Bulldogs’ appearances in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the team championship, the NCAA drew 13,456 spectators for the tournament. To put that into perspective, that’s the most since UGA last hosted in 2014 (15,809) and way more than it was at Baylor (8,099) and Tulsa (9,783) in between.
The fact is, nobody else does it quite like Georgia, which at 35 years has way more experience than anybody. As always, there were host families assigned to the nation’s top tennis teams, which are in Athens for a solid two weeks. They throw parties and banquets and support not only the home team but also the visitors.
The tennis folks who come here regularly and take advantage of the town’s reasonable lodging and vibrant downtown restaurant and entertainment options — not to mention the Davis Cup-type tennis atmosphere — hate to think they’re not going to be back here anytime soon.
“You know, walking into the [interview] tent I was actually thinking about that,” said Oklahoma’s Crowell. “This will be the last time we’re here for five years at least, so we need to savor this environment. There aren’t many places like this in tennis. Hopefully Georgia will get the championships back. I think it deserves to.”
It probably will, though there’s not even anybody to lobby about that right now. The people currently sitting on the selection committee won’t be by the time the bids come in again.
But Georgia is not going to rest on its laurels next time. It vows to be aggressive and attack the situation, something Oklahoma’s doubles team did considerably better on Monday.
“They’ve shown that they have a great future ahead of them,” Diaz said of his young doubles team. “But, yeah, this one hurts.”