Regular, or even irregular, readers of this blog will have noticed there hasn’t been much new here in a while. For various reasons, one or two of them good, I haven’t been writing much lately. Today I’m briefly interrupting that long dry spell, but with a tale about championship tennis, not my usual fare.
If this were a normal post, even about tennis, I’d be wondering how the Biden administration has been in office over 14 months (it seems much longer) without doing anything— not even an executive order — to eliminate the iniquitously inequitable underrepresentation of blacks in college tennis (only 4.1% of women — women! — in non-HBCU college programs in 2015-2016, according to the Washington Post). Such a post would also no doubt have noted that the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, according to its CEO, “is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” a commitment nicely exemplified by its decision “to kick off the month-long celebration” of Black History Month “with a change in the look and feel of the branding by adding the Pan-African Flag color scheme.”
Those issues will have to wait another day, or longer. Two days ago, on May 22 on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana, the University of Virginia men’s tennis team won its 5th NCAA national championship. The last time the University of Illinois hosted the championship tournament was 2013, when and where UVa won its first national title.
I will suggest below that UVa’s victory was dramatic, perhaps unique, but of course every national championship in any sport is dramatic, has its own story of surprising twists and turns on the journey to and in the final match or game. Nevertheless, I think the number of unusual features of UVa’s victory this year are noteworthy, and so I note them here.
First an interruption: if you’ve read this far you’re probably familiar with college tennis, but since a few readers may stumble on this post (or, in the case of some friends, have it forced on them by me) who may be unfamiliar, here is some basic, relevant information.
- A college match consists of 7 points. It begins with three doubles matches, and the team winning two of them wins one point. Then there are six singles matches, worth one point each. The team who wins 4 points wins the match, which makes it possible for a team to lose two of the three doubles matches and hence the doubles point and still win the match.
- The NCAA championship begins with three rounds of qualifying matches around the country. The eight winners, the quarter-finalists, travel to the tournament site, this year Champaign Urbana, for the championship tournament.
Following is a list, with brief discussions, of the rare or unusual or even unique features of UVa’s journey this year to the championship trophy.
- UVa lost five matches in a row early in the season. It then proceeded to a 20 match winning streak before the NCAA process began. Thus its overall record was not unusual, but it is unusual for a team with a 5 match losing streak in the season to make it to the tournament, much less to the championship.
- All four of the teams that defeated UVa during the season were among the 8 quarter-finalists in Champaign Urbana — No. 4 Ohio State, No. 3 Baylor, No. 2 Florida, and No.1 Texas Christian (which had defeated UVa twice).
- This is pure speculation, not even based on gossip, but I am convinced those early defeats produced a winning payoff of a brilliant gamble designed by UVa coach Andres Pedroso. He scheduled matches early in the season with the best teams in the country, I believe, knowing (perhaps even hoping) his team would lose many of them and thereby learn some humility and develop the determination to work even harder. The risk was that they might win some, thus slipping into confidence, which at this level of tennis is by definition over-confidence.
- In the tournament UVa, not surprisingly, was seeded next to last, No. 7, and its opponent in the championship match was Kentucky, seeded No. 8. Have there been other NCAA tournaments where the two finalists were the bottom of the ladder Nos. 7 and 8? I doubt it.
- The championship tournament consisted of seven matches — four quarter-finals, two semi-finals, and one final. Five of those matches were won by the lower-seeded team: No. 8 Kentucky defeated No. 1 TCU; No. 7 UVa defeated No. 2 Florida; No. 6 Tennessee defeated No. 3 Baylor; and No. 7 UVa defeated No. 6 Tennessee. The two exceptions were No 4 Ohio State defeating No. 5 Michigan in the quarter-finals, but losing to No. 8 Kentucky in the semi-finals, and No. 7 UVa defeating No. 8 Kentucky in the final. Seeding is always imprecise, but have they ever been this wrong?
- In the quarter-finals Kentucky defeated the team that had defeated UVa twice during the year, No. 1 TCU, and in the semi-finals it defeated one of the others, No. 4 Ohio State. Similarly, in the Round of 16 UVa eliminated No. 10, South Carolina, which had defeated Kentucky twice during the season, and in the quarter-finals UVa defeated No. 2, Florida, which also had defeated Kentucky twice during the season (and UVa once). Two good turns deserve another, I guess, but the result was that No. 7 UVa and No. 8 Kentucky were the two left standing at the end. They, too, had met earlier in the year, with UVa defeating Kentucky 4-2 on March 31.
- As the whole world now knows (or at least that portion of it interested in college tennis), in the final match UVa defeated Kentucky 4-0. What is less well-known, or appreciated, is how unusual that score was. The last time an NCAA finalist won without allowing its opponent a single point was 2007! In fact, going back nearly 50 years, to the beginning of the current system of scoring, there have been only eight 4-0 championship matches (including UVa’s recent one), and five of those were won by Stanford when it thoroughly dominated the game in the 1990s. UVa is thus one of only 3 schools in 50 years to have ever won a championship match 4-0.
- But wait; there’s more! Not only did UVa join a select group of three by winning its final championship match 4-0, it won all six of its NCAA championship matches by 4-0 except its 4-1 victory over Florida in the quarter-finals. Although I could not check, I doubt that record has been equaled.
- But note well: UVa lost only one point, one singles match, in the six matches it played from the first round through the championship final — an extraordinary 18 of 19 singles victories! (It was 18 of 19, not the 17 of 18 you would expect, because of an additional match counted in UVa’s semi-final match against Tennessee when two UVa players won their singles matches at virtually the same time, giving UVa a 5-0 victory in that match.) Again, I haven’t been able to check, but I doubt that record of singles matches won has ever been matched.
- Thus not only did a team seeded at the bottom of the ladder win the championship — that may well have happened before — but it thoroughly dominated the tournament from beginning to end to an astounding, perhaps unique, degree. Maybe someone with access to all the Stanford stats can find another example, but I doubt it.
All credit to the impressive guys holding the racquets, but they could not have done what they did without the remarkable coaching performance of Andres Pedroso, who began this process by recruiting these guys.
Finally, this tale cannot be told without a nod to history, and I say that not only as a lapsed historian. Pedroso’s coaching this year was beyond exemplary, but he did not begin with a blank slate. This, after all, was UVa’s 5th national championship. The first, in 2013, and then three in a row, 2015, 2016, and 2017, were produced by former coach Brian Boland, under whom Pedroso served as assistant coach.
When Boland came to Virginia as a young man out of Indiana, UVa tennis had never amounted to a hill of beans. And — this is an understatement — success did not come overnight. And even when UVa became successful, there was doubt for years that it would ever make it to the very top, a suspicion that it would always be a bridesmaid but never a bride. Consider this pre-championship NCAA history:
- 2006: UVa loses to Georgia in the quarter-finals
- 2007: UVa loses to Georgia in the final
- 2008: UVa loses to Georgia in the semi-finals
- 2009: UVa loses to USC in the quarter-finals
- 2010: UVa loses to USC in the semi-finals
- 2011: UVa loses to USC in the final
- 2012: UVa loses to USC in the final
Under Boland, and now under Pedroso, UVa has always emphasized a team-focused culture more than most programs. Tennis is obviously an individual sport, and molding a group of highly-talented, highly-competitive teen-agers into a team is difficult, but UVa over the years has had remarkable success doing so.
Boland left UVa after the 2017 championship season. Pedroso has been rebuilding since then, but since adversity builds character I believe that UVa’s pre-championship years in the wilderness under Boland’s unfailing determination to succeed built something into the very DNA of Virginia tennis, something even deeper than its team-focused culture, that still survives. Thus UVa’s 4-0 victory over Kentucky in the NCAA final, its 4-0 victory over every other opponent in that tournament except for the 4-1 against Florida, and its winning 18 of its 19 singles matches may have been rare to the point of being unique, but in some ways is not surprising. At least in part, its impressive string of tournament victories grew out of the character that earlier adversity had implanted, a character Pedroso must have recognized and aimed to enhance by scheduling his young team against the four best teams in the country early in the season.