Bulldogs enter record books after undefeated title campaign
After compiling a 62-1 record in two seasons -- including capping an undefeated run with a national title in 2007 -- Georgia men's tennis is undoubtedly dominant. But are the Bulldogs the best ever?
ATHENS, Ga. -- The best player in college tennis stands more than 6 feet, 9 inches tall and serves with a top speed of nearly 140 mph.
University of Georgia star John Isner stood even a little taller Tuesday, after helping the No. 1 ranked Bulldogs become only the fifth unbeaten men's tennis national champion since 1977. The top-seeded Bulldogs blasted No. 10 seed Illinois 4-0 in the finals at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, the 22nd time they shut out an opponent in 32 matches this season.
So with a 32-0 record, a two-year mark of 62-1, as well as having the country's No. 1 singles player and No. 1 doubles team, is Georgia the best tennis team in NCAA history?
"That question wasn't really relevant until right now," said Georgia coach Manuel Diaz, after winning his third national championship. "We've had some great teams that haven't even won it. But now that you ask, I think it is worth asking and debating. These guys have been dominant through one of the toughest schedules we've ever had."
No one was more dominant than Isner, a senior from Greensboro, N.C., who ran his career singles record to 138-27 by defeating Illinois' Kevin Anderson 6-1, 7-6 (1) at No. 1 singles. Isner provided the turning point in the championship match. After Isner easily won the first set, Anderson rallied with his serve and had three set points in the second set. But Isner fought Anderson off each time, forcing a tiebreaker.
|NCAA women's tennis final|
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia Tech athletics director Dan Radakovich really isn't sure how bad his school's women's tennis team was until coach Bryan Shelton was hired before the 2000 season.
In the first 23 years of the program, the Yellow Jackets never made the NCAA Tournament and had a winning record in ACC play only once in 16 seasons in the league. Mark Schlabach
"He aced me a few times in the tiebreaker, and he won a few points in some rallies," said Anderson, the fifth-ranked singles player in the country. "I never felt comfortable in the match. It's always tough playing him because you can never get into a rhythm. Obviously, you never get a chance to break him."
The Bulldogs have won each of their five national championships on their home courts, which have hosted the NCAA championships 24 times in 31 years. Georgia used to stage the event every year until 1989. The event was then moved to other sites when opposing coaches, especially those from the West Coast, complained of the Bulldogs' decided advantage playing in front of home crowds.
Georgia and Illinois could have played this one at Wimbledon, and the Illini might not have had much of a chance. College tennis places great importance on the doubles matches. Three doubles matches are played first, and the team that wins two of them receives the first point.
The Bulldogs had won the doubles point in 30 of their previous 31 matches. The doubles matches against the Illini were surprisingly close, with Illinois leading two of the three matches midway through each. But Georgia's No. 3 team of freshmen Jamie Hunt and Nate Schnugg rallied for a 9-7 victory over G.D. Jones and Marc Spicijaric.
Then junior Travis Helgeson and senior Matic Omerzel won the No. 2 doubles match 8-6 over Brandon Davis and Ruben Gonzales, clinching the doubles point for the Bulldogs.
"It was a tough match," Illinois coach Brad Dancer said. "We needed to get our feet in the ground in certain spots and get off to a good start. For the large part, we weren't able to do that and that's a credit to Georgia."
After winning the doubles point, Georgia had to only win three of the six singles matches. Schnugg won easily over Jones at No. 5 singles, 6-4, 6-1 to give the Bulldogs a 2-0 lead. Jones has been bothered by a shoulder injury and couldn't serve effectively. At times, he was forced to serve underhand.
Georgia went ahead 3-0 when Isner beat Anderson in straight sets. The victory gave Isner 138 career singles victories, tying him for the most by a Bulldogs player.
Georgia won the match when Omerzel beat Ruben Gonzalez 7-6 (5), 6-1 at No. 4 singles. Omerzel lost the deciding match in last season's NCAA finals, when the undefeated Bulldogs were upset by No. 2 Pepperdine 4-2 at Stanford's Taube Tennis Center. It was Georgia's only loss in 31 matches last season.
"I've said this a lot, but that match last year left a bitter taste in our mouths," Isner said. "Fortunately, Coach [Diaz] assembled a great team and we knew right from the get-go that we had a chance this year."
While Isner's height gave him the chance to be great in the college ranks because of his overpowering speed, few players as tall as him have excelled on the ATP Tour.
That question wasn't really relevant until right now. We've had some great teams that haven't even won it. But now that you ask, I think it is worth asking and debating. These guys have been dominant through one of the toughest schedules we've ever had.
Georgia coach Manuel Diaz
"He can play on the Tour," Diaz said of Isner. "He's a tremendous athlete. He covers the court well for an athlete his size. He's got great, soft hands. He's made tremendous gains in flexibility and with other aspects of his game."
Isner, 22, arrived at Georgia in 2003 weighing about 195 pounds, after he grew five inches during one summer in high school. He quickly learned to stretch more than shorter players to gain more flexibility and avoid strained muscles. Isner gained about 40 pounds by improving his diet and strength training. He lost 10 pounds during the three-week stretch through the NCAA Tournament.
"There are a lot of players out there on the Tour who are tall and have had success," Isner said.
Over the next six days, Isner will try to finish the triple crown of college tennis by winning the individual singles and doubles championships. He enters the 64-man singles field as the No. 1 seed. Isner and junior Luis Flores also are seeded No. 1 in the 32-team doubles field.
"He's one of the finest players I've ever seen," Dancer said.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.