With the match score tied 3-3 and UCLA’s Adrien Puget leading 5-3 in Set 3, it seemed like national title No. 109 was on the verge of realization for the Bruins. But then it all slipped away.
Slowly but surely, Virginia’s Mitchell Frank battled back and drew a number of key errors from Puget. UCLA went from team match point to facing elimination in what felt like a matter of seconds. There was a defining play in which Puget and the Bruins thought the match was won, but the would-be clincher was waived off because Puget’s foot hit the bottom of the net.
From then on, the junior from France looked shaken up, and couldn’t find his groove. Frank roared back for a 5-5 tie before breaking Puget for the 6-5 lead and holding his final serve to send the Cavs into hysteria.
After back-to-back seasons as the national runner-ups, UVA has climbed the mountain and hoisted its first-ever NCAA men’s tennis championship. It was a special moment for seniors Jarmere Jenkins and Julen Uriguen, two postseason vets who have been through it all with the Cavaliers.
For UCLA, it can only be described as heartbreak. Puget is the easy scapegoat, but he wasn’t the only player on the court today. The Bruins didn’t do themselves any favors by dropping the doubles point, and they were in deep once Clay Thompson (2-6, 2-6) and Dennis Novikov (6-7, 3-6) went down in straight sets.
And yet, UCLA showed a resilience unexpected from such a young team. Redshirt freshman Karue Sell, after falling in the first set, 4-6, turned on the turbo to trounce Uriguen 6-3, 6-2 in the next two sets. The Brazilian righty knotted the score 3-3 and put the torch in Puget’s hands.
Puget, after sweeping the first set, 6-0, dropped the second to Frank, 4-6. The pinnacle was in sight for UCLA as Puget jumped out the lead in the decisive set, but critical errors left the Bruins just short when the score went final.
This one is going to sting for a while, but it can’t overshadow the amazing season that UCLA put together. A final record of 29-2, including two Pac-12 championships, a No. 1 ranking and a runner-up NCAA finish. The Bruin faithful will have to wait at least a few more weeks until No. 109, though this did seem like the most realistic shot at a team championship for 2012-13.
Looking to the future, UCLA appears to be set for a nice run on the national stage. The entirety of the Bruins’ core will return next season (barring any sort of early departure), and that’s good news for a team that’s gaining experience. Dennis Mkrtchian and Marcos Giron, both singles winners today, are sophomores, as is Novikov. Puget and Thompson, though losers today, are spectacular talents and will be seniors in 2014.
And, as mentioned, Sell is only a freshman, which leaves a ton of time for his development under 20th-year head coach Billy Martin. The biggest loss from the roster is probably redshirt senior Alex Brigham, who saw some court time in doubles action this season. But overall, the UCLA men’s tennis program looks plenty capable of claiming its 17th NCAA title sometime in the near future.
Today we can sulk and ask what ifs, but no longer. When the sun rises tomorrow, we should all be proud of the Bruins for an impressive campaign that put UCLA back on the map. The Bruins are trending upward in a number of recently dormant sports, and we can only hope that means the national title record will remain in Westwood for the long haul.