The day started off with dominating doubles performances by the No. 13 University of Florida men’s tennis team (11-4). As the crowd and Gators would soon find out, there is a reason why the No. 3 University of Southern California Trojans (14-2) are back-to-back defending national champions.
The UF loss to the Trojans 4-3 on Thursday happened their first in Gainesville. Gators men’s tennis Head coach Andy Jackson knows exactly what made the difference between winning and ultimately losing this high-profile matchup.
“The thing we frankly told our guys is that it took us 45 minutes to engage in the singles and that is too long,” Jackson said. “That was the deciding factor in the match; the first 45 minutes after the doubles.”
In the doubles, the tandem of junior Nassim Slilam and sophomore Billy Federhofer supplied tremendous energy from the start en route to their victory (8-4) over Emilio Gomez and Daniel Nguyen of USC. Fellow Gators sophomore Bob van Overbeek and freshman Andrew Butz also volleyed their way to victory (8-4), which clinched the doubles point for the Gators.
Then the singles matches happened, except somebody forgot to tell the Gators. USC earned the first singles point with No. 53 defeating Overbeek (6-3, 6-2). Federhofer lost on court 5 (2-6, 2-6) to Emilio Gomez to move the overall score in favor of USC 2-1.
Every Gator except 17-year-old freshman Spencer Newman got off to a slow start against their opponent. The freshman earned the first UF singles win with his victory over Peter Lucassen of USC (6-0, 6-2) on court 6, which tied up the score at 2-2. No. 39 sophomore Sekou Bangoura Jr. lost to No. 41 Jaak Poldma (2-6, 3-6) moving the score back in favor of USC 3-2. Bangoura Jr. along with Overbeek had beaten their opponents before today.
There was no denying though what was the marquee match of the day. On centre court, Univ. of Fla. Gator and No. 6 senior Alexandre Lacroix faced the top singles player in the country in No. 1 Steve Johnson. The two nationally ranked players had met only once before. They played in the quarterfinals of the 2009 ITA All-American Tennis Championship. Lacroix lost after taking the first set.
Johnson quickly showed why he sports a now 13 consecutive singles match-winning streak. He took the first set 6-2 over Lacroix. The first set was a microcosm of how the rest of the matches were on Linder stadium. Both Lacroix and Johnson increased their level of play in the 2nd set. Jackson thinks that “Stevie” played a high quality match at the end of the 2nd set.
The 2nd set would eventually go to a competitive tiebreaker with Johnson using his over-powering groundstrokes to his advantage. Johnson clinched the victory with a forehand passing shot. Lacroix expressed the same sentiment as Jackson about the Gators’ ineffectiveness.
“It’s tough. I came really close at the end. It took the me and the team as well a set and a half to get into the singles and that costs us,” Lacroix said.
Lacroix laments the fact that he couldn’t extend his match but understands that the team loss presents a possibly beneficial situation for the Gators.
“I would have loved to play a third set to see if I could win, but its over. They were better than us today,” Lacroix said. “They are back-to-back NCAA champions so they know how to play tennis. We are going to try and learn from it”
A bright spot in the singles for the Gators was the inspired play of Slilam who overcame a 1st set deficit to beat No. 24 Nguyen (7-6, 6-1).
The Gators will host No. 22 University of Mississippi Rebels on Saturday, March 19 at 1 p.m. Jackson does not believe the top 30 ranking does the Univ. of Miss. tennis team any justice.
“Ole Miss is not a top-30 team. Ole Miss is a top-15 team that has not played any competition yet,” Jackson said. “They were here today practicing and have been in Florida for two days scouting our match. It will be at least this level on Saturday.”
Gator Country reporter Adam Pincus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamDpincus.