The third-seeded and second-ranked Florida women’s tennis team defeated top-seeded and third-ranked Georgia, 4-0, and won the 2013 Southeastern Conference Championship on Sunday afternoon at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre.
Not only was this the Gator’s 19th SEC Championship in the 26-year history of the league’s postseason event, but it marked the 16tth time Florida has won both the regular-season and tournament titles in the same season.
The Gators (22-2) captured the doubles point in thrilling fashion and then used singles victories from freshman Brianna Morgan (Beverly Hills, Calif.), junior Alexandra Cercone (Seminole, Fla.) and junior Olivia Janowicz (Palm Bay, Fla.) to win their fourth consecutive SEC Tournament crown.
“We trained hard for this championship, to be able to play three grueling days in a row against competition like this. We played three top-20 teams, two top-four teams back-to-back. I was really proud of them,” said UF head coach Roland Thornqvist, who has guided the Gators to eight SEC Tournament titles in his 11 years. “This championship means a great, great deal to us.”
Florida’s SEC Tournament run included a 4-1 win against No. 18 Vanderbilt on Friday, a 4-1 win versus No. 4 Texas A&M on Saturday, before Sunday’s 4-0 shutout over third-ranked Georgia. Every Gator recorded at least one win on either the singles or doubles court during Florida’s three-match spree to the championship.
“When we meet in August, we talk about being the best team on day three and I thought we looked as fresh as a daisy even though we had to play late at night (for the quarterfinal match) and didn’t get much rest,” Thornqvist shared. “We had to play two top-four teams to win it. I thought we were the fresher team today and that’s all the credit to these guys for buying into the fitness we do. I love this team. We’ve lost a lot of doubles points this year but we never hang our heads. Of course, the doubles win today should give a lot of confidence that we can do it in the NCAA Tournament.”
Janowicz had been the first Gator to win her singles match during Florida’s quarterfinal and semifinal matches and was able to even the team score after the Gators had lost the doubles point in both outings. On Sunday, Janowicz came through with the third and final singles victory to clinch the championship as she rallied to beat Ayaka Okuno, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 on court five.
Janowicz, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Performer after providing three singles victories in three days, was down a break, 4-2 in the third set, but stepped up to win four consecutive games, including one final break at love, to win her team-leading 33rd singles match of the year, as well as the 89th of her career.
“When I was down 4-2, I saw that our girls needed my help because we were all in really close matches and I just wanted to do everything I could not to lose,” Janowicz said. “When I see our girls play and see how they fight and play with so much passion, it’s electrifying. It helps you.”
Morgan gave Florida a 2-0 lead after she posted an impressive 6-3, 6-0 win against junior Kate Fuller on court four. The Gator freshman lost her serve to begin the match, but quickly recovered and got the match back on serve until the fifth game, where the two competitors traded serves. Morgan held for a 4-3 lead and broke Fuller, before serving out for the first set, as she won the final nine games of the match to earn the victory.
Morgan improved to 15-1 in dual match singles action, while collecting her 24th overall win of the year.
Cercone stepped up again and set the stage for Janowicz’s heroics with a 6-4, 6-3 win against Silvia Garcia on court three and the Gators took a 3-0 lead in the team scoring. The Gator junior, who posted her 11th consecutive win, jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but a couple of breaks had the frame back on serve through nine games, as Cercone capitalized on her second break point in the 10th game to take the first set. The second set was just as tight, as Cercone got the break in the eighth game and served out at love to capture her 25th singles win of the season.
Florida had lost the doubles point in each of its last three matches and halted that streak with a thrilling display on Sunday. Georgia won 8-0 on court two in 36 minutes and put the pressure on Florida’s remaining two teams.
“Today, we were spectacular in doubles,” Thornqvist said. “We had to beat the number one doubles team in the country to win the doubles point. It looked grim for a little while, but one thing about this team is that we never give up. We’re like a fourth-quarter team – the longer it goes the better we get and that’s very comforting as a coach.”
The Gators rose to the challenge, beginning with the freshman pair of Danielle Collins and Brianna Morgan which topped Ayaka Okuno and Lilly Kimbell, 8-3, on court three. Attention then turned to court one, where No. 22-ranked Lauren Embree and Sofie Oyen were battling top-ranked Kate Fuller and Silvia Garcia.
Florida was assessed a point-penalty from an incident on court two, but because that match had finished the rule stated that the penalty was to be charged to the highest-ranked position still in progress, which was court one where the Gators were serving at 4-all. Florida lost that game and Georgia quickly held for a 6-4 lead.
Embree then held and the Gators broke Fuller’s serve, as Oyen headed to the baseline aiming to get the 8-game pro-set back on serve.
Oyen held on her third game-point, but the Gator’s needed Embree’s overhead winner to fight off one break point, as Florida held the 7-6 lead.
Garcia held for the Bulldogs, who clawed back and earned another break for an 8-7 lead. With Fuller serving, the Gators fought off double-match-point and got the break, as Oyen’s lob for winner set up break point and the match headed to a tiebreak, where Florida won the first three points behind a pair of mini-breaks and closed out the victory with a 7-2 margin for the 9-8 (7-2) decision and claim the important doubles point.
“We lost the momentum midway through, but stayed together because they were communicating,” Thornqvist shared. “Once we got to the tiebreaker I thought we were mentally tough. Sofie made some crosses early in the tiebreaker that set the tone and we were off and running.”
The individual win was Embree’s 114th career doubles victory, tying for the fourth-most in program history with Jessica Lehnhoff (1999-2002) and Nina Suvak (2004-07).
“This championship is really special for our team,” shared Embree, who was named to the SEC All-Tournament Team. “We’re all really excited and going to enjoy the moment. (Senior) Caroline (Hitimana) and I are four-for-four (in SEC championships) but without us having the team that we’ve had these last four years, none of this would have happened. We’re a really tough team and that’s what it took today.”
Florida earned the SEC’s automatic berth into the NCAA Championships field of 64. The NCAA Team Championships selections will be announced on April 30 at 5:30 p.m. ET on NCAA.com, with the names individual singles and doubles participants revealed on May 1 by 6 p.m. on the same website. First round and second round matches of the team competition will be held May 10, 11 and 12 at 16 campus sites, with those locations also to be announced on April 30.
Courtesy of UF Communications