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Wednesday May 16, 2012Every Match Matters: Gators Look to Defend NCAA Title

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The secret to winning big in team tennis isn't really a secret.

You need a bunch of really good players.

Oh sure, the same thing could be said about most team sports. The deeper the squad, the better, of course. But it's not the same.

In football, a great quarterback can take you a long way. In basketball, sometimes it's one or two players the team has to lean on. In baseball, a manager can work his lineup to mask a weakness. In just about every sport, the significance of a certain player's role can be molded and defined. 

But in team tennis, what's happening on the No. 1 singles court is every bit as important as the No. 6 singles court.

"A point is a point," Florida coach Roland Thornqvist said. "You need four of them to win."

That very point was never more evident than a year ago, when the Gators used their entire seven-player roster to shock Stanford on its home court -- where the Cardinal had won 184 consecutive matches -- and win the 2011 NCAA women's tennis championship.

Every member of the squad that hoisted the hardware in Northern California last year returned this season for UF's run at its 2012 title defense. The Gators (23-1) rolled through the first two rounds at home last weekend, but the competition -- like the stakes -- go next level with the round of 16 Thursday night, with the starting with second-seeded UF (23-1) facing 15th-seeded Michigan (19-6) in a 7 p.m. match at the Athens, Ga.

The Gators are ready and unified for the task. All seven of them.

"We're a confident team," sophomore Alexandra Cercone said. "We went through the grind last year. We know how hard this is and know what it takes to get it done." 


The round of 16 will unite the blue bloods of women's tennis, with 15 of the top 16 seeds still alive, including powerhouses UCLA (No. 1 seed), Duke (3), USC (4) and, of course, Stanford (5), with its 16 all-time national championships. The great programs have great players, and most of those women are playing at the top of the lineup.

That's where depth comes in.

And look no further than what Cercone (at No. 5) and Olivia Janowicz (No. 6) were able to do as freshmen in tournament play last year.

Both went unbeaten once the Sweet 16 began.

"We may not get as much of the media attention as the girls at the top of our lineup, but we know -- and everybody on our team knows -- we're just as important," Janowicz said. "All of us could play very high on lineups at other schools, but we want to be here. The team is so good and all of the girls love each other and play for each other."

In the epic title match last year, UF took the doubles points for a 1-0 lead, but the Cardinal swooped in to win the first three singles matches, hanging losses on Allie Will at No. 1, Sofie Oyen at No. 3 and Joanna Mather at No. 4 for a commanding 3-1 lead.

That left Cercone and Janowicz on the far-end courts, plus No. 2 Lauren Embree in the middle, with zero margin for error.

"We needed all of them," Thornqvist said.

Those three, in turn, needed their teammates' support to battle the partisan Stanford crowd. Will, Oyen and Mather, after difficult defeats, became the the Gators' biggest cheerleaders. They had to.

"You don't have time [in team tennis] to sit there and feel sorry for yourself because you lost," said Mather, now a senior and team captain for the second year in a row. "At that point, we had to support the others and help them through it."

Did they ever.

Cercone, down a set on Court 5, was the first to finish, beating Veroncia Li 6-4 in the decisive third set. Then came Janowicz, who also rallied from a grueling first-set tiebreaker loss, to blast Carolyn McVeigh 6-1 in the third set. It was Janowicz's 19th straight victory playing at No. 6.

The match was tied at 3-3.  

Embree and Mallory Burdette, at Court 2, were all left to finish matters. Only a national championship rested on the outcome.

Down 4-0 in the third set, Embree stormed back, with her teammates going wild, to win a 7-6 tiebreaker and cap a remarkable comeback that set off an emotional celebration. The Gators had their fifth championship in women's team tennis; the second for Thornqvist.

"At first, I felt bad because I wanted to win for my team," Oyen said. "But then I cheered and pulled for the others ... and I felt great because we won."

It's nice to know your teammates have your back.

And it's even nicer to know your teammates are really, really good up and down the lineup.

"This is exactly what you recruit for," Thornqvst said. "To be the deepest team on the court this time of year."

After all, that point at No. 6 could be the one.

It was last year.

"I felt I was the best No. 6 in the country and could be playing somewhere else, but that wasn't a negative for me. I took pride in that," Janowicz said. "I think you can take pride in just knowing that you're really good at your spot and helping the team. That's the attitude we have and it brings so much confidence to all the other girls."

Achievement, too.

 

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