By Rex Miller
DURHAM, North Carolina (March 23, 2012) Back from the Sony Ericsson Open I had the opportunity to go watch a great college match-up between No. 3 University of Virginia and No. 6 Duke. I know the Key Biscayne event is at the forefront of the tennis radar, but I think very few people know how outstanding a tennis experience catching a Division 1 match can be.
The other day I mentioned the trio of outstanding 18-19 year-olds that Dennis Kudla was a part of at the JuniorÂ Champions’ Training Center in College Park, MD; well, his mateÂ Mitchell Frank was in action Friday in an outstanding college matchup of top-10 powerhouses UVA and Duke.
Bluntly put, Mitchell Frank is gonna be top 100, probably higher, that’s my prediction. Of course many things can present challenges along that road, but as his coachÂ from the JCTCÂ said, “This guy works so hard and his mind is like a little computer. Mitchell is going to surprise a lot of people.” He won a round at the Open quallies, 7-6 in the 3rd, before losing by the same score.
Lots of interesting story lines here, including Duke Men’s Coach Ramsey Smith, a former No. 603 ATP player who went into coaching (and also worked as a fly-fishing guide) after being derailed by a shoulder injury. Quick: who can name his father, the one with the longest-running shoe contract in the sports world (no not MJ), former world No. 1 and standout at USC. Well, the younger Smith is really coming into his own as he builds the Duke Men’s program into a top 5 powerhouse that I think will be around for a while. There are many challenges in building a perennial powerhouse like Stanford, Georgia, USC, Virginia, etc., but Ramsey and assistant Jonathan Stokke (who played with Smith at Duke) are attracting top talent, managing to keep them there with the great academics, and they are knocking on the door.
Full disclosure: I live in Durham, NC, a block from Duke, but I can’t call myself a Blue Devil fan (come on, my spouse is a UNC grad).
However, I’m a big fan of college tennis. One of my favorite things to do at the US Open is find a perch where I can watch multiple matches. Here, I can follow 6 matches at once, as all matches have point-by-point scores displayed on a large scoreboard, which I believe is the case at most D-1 matches. Ramsey has told me that “College Tennis really is a game of team momentum.” Â In truth, it is. A guy on the 4th court may look down and see a big shot by his teammate, followed by a big fist pump and a “Yeah!!” (which, frankly, happens a bit too much for my tastes, call me old-school), and next thing you know he’s broken serve to change the flow on his court, and it becomes infectious.
In college matches, three doubles matches startÂ the tie and it’s like a 50-yard dash, as they play 8-game pro-sets, and whichever school wins 2 matches takes the doubles point. Sometimes, it’s over in 20 minutes and the school that comes out casually or flat does so at it’s own peril. Today, Duke squeaked out the point and the 2 schools got down to serious business with the six singles matches, which had momentum swings left and right, 5 of them finishing with the overall match tied at 3-3.
Several hundred fans now shifted to the stands behind the middle court. Down on playing level, players from the 2 teams stand and cheer from the sideline on their player’s side of the net, leading to a unique ritual every changeover–about 10-12 players and coaches switch sides with their player. As momentum builds to the match’s conclusion to decide the overall result, each point is met with a huge outburst, more like a march-madness hoop game than anything Wimbledon has seen.
Virginia is incredibly deep in talent, with Frank playing #3, although he’s ranked #1 in the country. Their No 2 player, 6’7″ Alex Domijan, was No. 1 most of the season last year! Which only goes to show what a high level Jenkins is playing at
With the match locked at 3-3, the decision came down to a battle of top-10 players on court one.Â Virginia’s Jarmere Jenkins, from Atlanta, is a very talented and physical player, with cat-like reflexes and movement, who can pound a big forehand when he has his feet set. His style contrasted with the smooth lefty from Brazil, Henrique Cunha, a silky counter-puncher with outstanding court sense.Â Third-ranked Cunha and No. 7 Jenkins both stayed on serve to force a tiebreaker in the first set of their No. 1 singles contest, with Jenkins just edging Cunha, 7-4. In the 2nd, Jenkins garnered a break to go ahead, 3-1, on his way to a 6-1 victory.
The loss dropped Duke to 13-3 overall and 2-1 in ACC play, while Virginia improved to 14-1 and 4-0 in conference action.
“Overall, I think it was a great college match,” Smith said. “We had an awesome crowd, good atmosphere out there. And coming down to No. 1 singles, that’s just a good match.”
All photos by Rex Miller