March 13, 2014
Hello Again From Alabama Tennis,
What an emotion-filled weekend we had last Friday and Sunday down in the Bayou and here in Tuscaloosa. The results were a pair of 4-3 nail-biters and a convincing Sunday night victory.
Over the years, I had heard that Baton Rouge was a tough place to play. Whether it's due to Coach Saban's tenure at both schools, the craziness of Mardi Gras (which actually began in Mobile) or the fact there's a live tiger that roams in his caged habitat in front of the basketball arena, there's just a little something extra that makes competing and winning in Baton Rouge a brutal proposition. We arrived to rainy and cold conditions which altered our practice on Thursday. After an hour or so of drying off the courts we got in an hour of hitting before heading off to a tasty dinner. The women's program was also in town to play the Tigers so it really felt like Bama vs. LSU.
The match began Friday under clear and warm temps. A Cajun string band was on site playing tunes for Tiger tennis fans and free food was being served - jambalaya and pizza (I didn't taste the pizza but must say the jambalaya was some of the best I've ever had). We came away with the important doubles point and carried that momentum into singles. After splitting first sets across all courts and more fans getting into the match, it was easy to see that this was going to be a war. No layups and certainly no slam dunks (like LSU alumni Shaquille O'Neal displayed years ago).
Becker O'Shaughnessey put up the second point for Bama after a straight set win, but then LSU answered with a couple of its own. When Nikko Madregallejo collected his 4th consecutive victory, the Crimson Tide was within striking distance of closing things out. That situation, however, seemed to inspire and reignite the Tigers and their faithful. The wind picked up as the sun started to go down and the women's match was more than an hour delayed, which was good since their cheers were huge for us. Daniil Proskura and Stuart Kenyon, our two captains, were the last courts on, so we were going to sink or swim under their leadership.
After Daniil lost a three-set battle, Stuart found himself winning the second set and carrying momentum into the third. After taking an early lead, Stuart went up 40-0 on his opponent's serve where a service break would prove vital down the stretch. Somehow he didn't manage to get the break and then got broken in his next service game. The Tigers were salivating as Stuart now found himself down a break 4-2 against his opponent, who also happened to be from Texas and a longtime rival/friend in junior tennis. Well when you're up against the ropes, you've got to punch your way out, and that's exactly what Stuart did winning four consecutive games to close out the 4-3 match and secure an Alabama victory. It would be a much less painful 5 1/2 hour drive back home given the accomplishment and triumph.
The Razorbacks were next on the docket as well as The Citadel. After a very late arrival back in town early Saturday morning and losing an hour with the daylight savings change, the Tide regrouped and was ready to go. Arkansas was now led by longtime SEC coach Andy Jackson whose successful career began at Mississippi State and continued at Florida before landing in Fayetteville. As we experienced last year, Arkansas played very good doubles and competed well.
We were a man down without Becker in the lineup but felt good about our squad. Doubles was again consistently inconsistent and we found ourselves in a hole, 0-1. After a quick locker room talk the Tide came out firing, winning first sets on all six courts in front of a large and neighborly crowd in attendance for the Bama Block Party.
The Tide jumped out to a 3-1 lead and was within a point of chalking up a victory as the fans slow-clapped their way in between taking bites of free pizza. But as we experienced at LSU, expect the unexpected. The Razorbacks saved match points and cut the lead to 3-2. After coming from behind to win another match, things were knotted at 3-3. The suspense carried over to Nikko's court where he was in a second set tiebreaker and within reach of victory. The momentum shifted back and forth throughout until Arkansas snatched the 11-9 breaker to force a third and final set. The dual match had now gone into its fifth hour. At the end of the day The Tide fell and it hurt. The pizza was gone but humble pie was being served for dessert. It was a huge learning experience for coaches and players not to mention The Citadel who watched the end of the match and had upset on their minds. Close matches are what it's all about and really our guys did the best they could. As a whole, however, we didn't execute and that cost us in the end. Now it was time to hold our heads high and finish on a strong note against the visiting Bulldogs.
We were another man down heading into this match with Nikko getting a chance to recover after his three-setter. Brian "BC" Conlon stepped in and grabbed a pair of victories in the Tide's 7-0 win. A long weekend finished and more importantly nine more great opportunities (and matches) on the horizon.
We've had this weekend circled on our calendars for a while. Our first "Friday Night Lights" match with Iron Bowl 2 taking place on Friday, March 14 at 5 p.m. Auburn comes to town playing well and most likely with a chip on its shoulder after we beat them at Blue Gray a few weeks ago. The Crimson Racket Club and parents of players from the Crimson Tide Junior Tennis Academy will host a free cookout with plenty to eat from the grill. We're hoping for a huge crowd to entertain our in-state rivals and kick off Friday night matches with a bang. Head Strength and Conditioning coach Scott Cochran will hit the honorary first serve and provide a spark to start the evening.
Then on Monday, March 17, 20-time national team champion USC surfs into town for another 5 p.m. match on St. Patrick's Day. I look forward to hosting my good friend and mentor Peter Smith here in Tuscaloosa and giving them a run for their money. Taco Casa will sponsor this event and provide tasty treats to all fans though I don't think corned beef and cabbage burritos will be on the menu.
There were no ultimate games to report on this week, but there will be next week. Here's to an exciting weekend ahead and continuing our progress.