March 20, 2014
Roll Tide from Alabama Men's Tennis,
We're on the road this week after a pair of tough contests against an in-state rival and a 20-time national team champion. Each match brought along great build-up, excitement, crowds, tasty food and, of course, tennis.
First up was Auburn, who arrived in Tuscaloosa with a chip on their shoulder as Roll Tide had prevailed over War Eagle in our last two outings (4-3 in 2013 and 4-1 last month at the Blue Gray Championships). The rivalry between the crimson/white and blue/orange dated back to a football game held in 1893. What has transpired since that time is like none other in college sports. While the majority of these battles have been staged on the gridiron, the non-pigskin sports have taken a lot of pride in putting their best foot forward on these special days.
And so began my third Iron (Tennis) Bowl with the Tide prepared and energized. Fan after fan flowed into the facility grabbing a free hamburger or hot dog (or several seen on the plates of Bama football players) provided by the Crimson Racket Club and the parents of players from the Crimson Tide Junior Tennis Academy. What an incredible showing of support for our program but also an impressive display of cookout organization. Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Scott Cochran slugged a ball out of the facility during the honorary first serve and the tone was set - "YEAH, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!" The upper deck was full for doubles and in between bites came hollers of "Roll Tide" and "ALA-BAMA!" The home team would not disappoint and came away with the important point heading into singles play. We had our minds on closing things out and early on it appeared to be heading in this direction. After come-from-behind first set wins on four of six courts, however, Auburn seemed to carry that momentum forward much like their no-huddle offense did in football last fall. They knotted the match at one apiece after posting a `W' on court four, but Andrew Goodwin pushed Bama back ahead 2-1 with an impressive, straight-set victory filled with slicing, dicing and drop shots. Four matches remained, and the momentum had continued to swing in our favor when Daniil Proskura, Becker O'Shaughnessey, Stuart Kenyon (the week's black jersey winner) and Hayes Brewer evened things with second-set wins. It was going to be a three-set fight to the finish. ROLL TIDE, war ea..., ROLL TIDE!
Becker and Hayes were broken once in their final frames to lose tight matches, and Auburn inched ahead 3-2. The captains, Daniil and Stuart, were once again the final pair on stage, and the crowd surrounded their courts in anticipation of a home victory. Stuart went up a break in the third and led 5-3, while Daniil broke his opponent at 3-5 to get things back on serve. The battle cries continued, and the shots went back and forth. After a heavy, topspin forehand just missed catching the baseline on court one, the Tigers stormed the court in celebration, and the Tide were clipped at the wire. Another emotion-filled result, a norm for the season, had been recorded. Tough to digest and swallow like an overcooked hot dog or hamburger (of which there were none that night), but nonetheless another invaluable and exciting experience in college tennis for the home crowd and team.
Following a day off on Saturday, the Bama boys regrouped under sunny skies for practice on Sunday, while their Southern California opponents filed into the facility with a noteworthy resume. First in NCAA team championships with 20 and finalists, ironically, in the last three National Indoor Team Championships, USC returned to Tuscaloosa for the first time since 1989 with just two losses (vs. No. 2 Ohio State & No. 3 UCLA). The Tide knew what it was up against, and while local sports books had the Trojans heavily favored, we liked our chances should we carry the same fight and fury we had throughout this season. Local dining favorite Taco Casa provided free burritos for our faithful who were uncharacteristically bundled up from head to toe for this spring affair. The temps were at 50 degrees but would fall well into the 40s. Play indoors against an outdoor team, or keep our warm weathered opponents outside in the what seemed to be freezing temps? Both coaches agreed to play outside, and the battle began on schedule in between shots (by players) and shivers (by coaches and fans).
A closely contested doubles point ensued with the Trojans pulling out in front 1-0. The Tide headed out for singles ready to keep fighting "to the bitter end." As I looked down the row of courts, I realized that I had coached all 12 players - six Alabama, six USC - over the past four years. It was a bit strange, but it calmed the jitters and allowed me to appreciate this opportunity for our team. The Trojans were up for the match and displayed very good control and fight of their own. In the end, we fought, but they were good ... very good. Be that as it may, the strength of our schedule proved to be too strong for us on this day. In my opinion, however, if we want to be the best, we must play the best.
A day of rest and recovery followed before returning to SEC action and a trip to South Carolina and Florida. Two-thirds of our season is now complete, while the growth and progress continues. Our tanks are full of fuel, and I'm confident in the road ahead - this time traveled on a sweet, sleeper bus fully equipped with beds, flat screens and wi-fi.
The South Carolina Gamecocks are up next for us, and it will be a Friday Night Lights edition in Columbia as first serve takes place at 5 p.m. ET. Then we'll travel south to Gainesville for a match against the Gators on Sunday at 1 p.m. EST. Both great matches and opportunities for us, and I'm really excited to kick off our Spring Break in fine fashion. A short two-day week of practice didn't leave much time for ultimate, so we're definitely going to catch up on this trip. If you happen to be heading to the Carolina or Florida beaches and either campus is within reasonable distance, stop on by and ...