NCAA tennis tourney rocks as Georgia rolls USC

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The stands were packed inside the Henry Feild Stadium courts area of the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on Thursday as Georgia and Southern Cal faced off in the NCAA Championship.

ATHENS — The barks were back at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on the UGA campus Thursday.

In a man-we-needed-that moment the likes of which Georgia has not encountered in a while, the 13th-seeded Bulldogs knocked off No. 4 Southern Cal 4-3 in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Championships. UGA (21-7) will take on fifth-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals on Saturday at 4 p.m.

This was more than your resident 13 vs. 4 seed upset. One must consider:

  • USC had trounced UGA 4-0 earlier this season.
  • The last three times the NCAA Championships have been held in Athens, the Trojans won the title. They’ve won five of their eight total on these courts.
  • The Bulldogs lost the all-important doubles point, despite it coming down to a tiebreaker involving their nationally-number-one ranked team.
  • Oh, and Georgia has been, ahem, a bit distracted lately. Associate head coaches for the respective men’s and women’s programs are currently suspended while police conduct an investigation into theft and/or mishandling of prescription medications.

Yet there the Bulldogs were Thursday, piling on Wayne Montgomery on Mikael Pernfors Center Court after he came roaring from behind to best Nick Crystal 6-2 in the third set at No. 2 singles. His clincher came literally less than a minute after Jan Zielinski had pulled off a similar come-from-behinder on Court 4.

“Personally, I felt confident coming into this match,” Montgomery said. “I honestly had no doubt.”

Maybe he didn’t, but everybody else did, especially after the Bulldogs dropped the doubles point. And it was more than a little deflating when they did.

Robert Loeb and Zielinski are the top-ranked team in the country and had come from behind to send their match against the nation’s 14th-ranked into a tiebreaker. Georgia’s team won the first point, then not another.

Southern Cal clinched 7-1 and the raucous, partisan UGA crowd that had been standing only minutes early was sitting quietly as the competition moved to singles with the Bulldogs trailing 1-0.

“I can’t afford to be disappointed,” Georgia coach Manny Diaz said of his reaction in that moment. “Erase the board and start again. We’ve got six points to play for. That was only one.”

You’d think that Southern Cal would be crushed going down like it did. And indeed, there was disappointment. Many had tabbed them as one of the favorites to win a title, what with their record of success and all.

But Southern Cal coach Peter Smith is also a friend of Diaz and a fan of Athens as a venue and he knows what all they’ve been dealing with here. In addition to the off-court controversy is the NCAA’s recent decision to take the tournament elsewhere for the next five years.

It will be the longest absence from Athens since they went to a team format in 1977.

“No matter what happens there are amazing memories here,” Smith said of UGA as the venue. “The tournament shouldn’t be taken away. It should be here more often than not, if not every year than every other year. It’s a special place, and hats off to UGA.”

Smith was among the 32 coaches that attended an organizational meeting at here at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex Wednesday night. He said ahead of time he planned to “express my displeasure to the powers that be” that Georgia has been left out of the NCAA’s tournament plans for the next five years.

I’m assuming Kelsey Cermak was also in attendance and heard from Smith (and perhaps a Georgia rep or two). She is the “primary men’s liaison” for the tennis committee that left out Georgia when it decided on hosts for the four tournaments after next year’s appearance at Wake Forest.

Cermak was actually on site Thursday and I tracked her down to ask her some questions about the bid process, how it worked and, honestly, why UGA was passed over.

Standing right there in front of me, she said she’d need me to call somebody in Indianapolis. I got Gail Dent’s voicemail, left a message and didn’t hear back. Typical corporate run-around.

Nevertheless, I’d done a little research — I know, hard to believe — and the numbers really support the argument of the NCAA bringing its tournament here as often as possible, as Smith suggests. Georgia hosted the men’s tournament here 23 times between 1977 and 2005 and the average attendance was 14,983. The average crowd for the other six places it was held in that span was 9,284.

More recently, since they combined the men’s and women’s tournaments at one venue, UGA has served as host four times and drawn and average of 16,766 spectators to those events. The average for the seven other host sites: 10,340.

At this writing, they hadn’t yet figured how many fans were on hand for the first day’s session on Thursday. I can only tell you that for the Georgia-USC match the stands at the Henry Feild Stadium courts were packed nearly to the brim. And the crowd was into it.

It was first experience of anything of this sort for Zielinski, a sophomore from Poland.

“It felt incredible,” he said. “I’d heard stories about how it feels to play here during the NCAAs. People said it was the greatest crowd in college tennis. I’ve got to say it was incredible.”

Yes, the barks were back, and they will be for a couple more days at least. The fifth-seeded Lady Dogs play Pepperdine Friday at 4 and Diaz’s Dogs are back Saturday at 4 versus UCLA.

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