For the third time in school history, the Tennessee men’s tennis team fell just short in its bid for a national championship, falling in the finals of the NCAA Tennis Championships to USC, 4-2, at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga., on May 26.
The championship match began with the No. 2-seeded Volunteers (31-2) winning the doubles point to gain the early edge, but the Trojans would go on to win four of the six singles matches with the final match being stopped after USC (25-3) clinched its second straight national title.
"(I’ve) got to start with congratulating Southern California," Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said following the match. "They did a phenomenal job in the singles. They deserved to win today. Not because we tried any less but because they played to win. I think we didn't. We wanted to win, and maybe we wanted to win a little too much.”
Tennessee’s No. 3-ranked doubles team of J.P. Smith and Davey Sandgren defeated USC’s No. 9 team of Robert Farah and Steve Johnson, 8-6, and the Vol team of Matteo Fago and Edward Jones clinched the doubles point with a victory over Jaak Poldma and Jason McNaughton, 8-6. No. 12-ranked Rhyne Williams and Boris Conkic were leading in their match with Trojans J.T. Sundling and Daniel Nguyen 7-4 before the match was stopped.
The momentum turned for the Trojans’ favor in a big way when the match went to singles. USC won the first set in five of the six singles matches.
The Trojans picked up their first point of the championship match when the No. 3-ranked Johnson defeated Tennessee’s No. 36 Conkic 6-3, 6-2. UT’s Williams, the No. 46-ranked singles player, won his match against No. 89 Poldma, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, to give Tennessee a 2-1 lead in the race to four points.
No. 1-ranked Smith then fell to USC’s No. 9 Farah, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, and No. 121 Peter Lucassen defeated Tennessee’s Fago 6-3, 6-4 to give the Trojans a 3-2 lead.
The Vols needed victories from both No. 111-ranked Tennys Sandgren and No. 115 Matt Brewer to comeback and earn the program’s first national title.
Sandgren fell to USC’s Nguyen 6-7 (3-7), 6-1, 6-0 to clinch the championship match for the Trojans and Brewer’s match with Matt Kecki was stopped with Brewer leading 3-6, 7-6 (7-3), 5-4.
Williams was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team for his play during the 64-team tournament and was upbeat regarding the play of the entire team throughout.
The team will return most of its current roster next season, including top-ranked Smith, and hopes to contend for a national championship next year, but Winterbotham believed this season was rewarding in itself.
"I'm very proud of what we've accomplished," he said.