TULSA — Alex Ghilea’s match continued. Then John Roddick’s streak continued.
And then the University of Oklahoma’s special year continued.
Ghilea, an OU junior from Romania, rallied from one set down to force a third set on Monday night against Georgia in the semifinals of the NCAA men’s tennis championships. When his teammates arrived beside Court 4 at the University of Tulsa’s Case Tennis Center, Ghilea’s third set against Walker Duncan was just beginning.
With the No. 11 seed Sooners and No. 7 Bulldogs tied at three points apiece, a trip to Tuesday’s national championship match rode on Ghilea and Duncan’s third set. The winner would move his team forward into the finale to face top-seeded Virginia.
Ghilea dominated the final set 6-2 to send Roddick’s program to its third consecutive national championship showdown. The Sooners and Cavaliers get started at 6 p.m. in a rematch of last year’s title match.
Maybe this year there will be more magic at the end. It’s been that kind of year already for the Sooners, with a College Football Playoff trip by the football team, a Final Four trip for the men’s basketball team and national championships for both the men’s and women’s gymnastics teams.
“The year we’ve had is special across the board, and again, it’s the student-athletes and the coaches that commit to the common purpose,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione told The Franchise. “And we’re not done yet. Not just in this sport, but golf is still playing and softball is still going, men’s and women’s track had a great finish to their conference season and on to the championships. So, it’s exciting.”
OU won the doubles point by winning the first two of the three matches, but Georgia’s Austin Smith quickly took down Andrew Harris at No. 1 singles to tie it at 1-1. The Bulldogs’ Paul Ooosterbaan then beat Spencer Papa at No. 3 to make it 2-1. OU’s Andre Biro prevailed over Nick Wood at No. 6 to make it 2-2 and minutes later, OU’s Florin Bragusi defeated Jan Zeilinski in three sets at No. 5 to give the Sooners a 3-2 lead. At No. 2, OU’s Axel Alvarez had beaten Wayne Montgomery 6-1 in the first set but dropped the last two as Georgia tied it at 3-3.
That sent some 2,000 fans converging on Court 4 for the Ghilea-Duncan third set.
Roddick, a two-time national runner-up, is ready to cross the championship threshold. Roddick acknowledged that, with all that was on the line Monday night, watching Ghilea’s third set might have come with excruciating tension. But it didn’t.
“For me, it’s different every time,” Roddick said. “And I think it depends on how your guys are playing. Tonight, once Alex really got established what he wanted to establish, I wasn’t nervous at all, because I felt like he was doing what he needed to do to win that match. But sometimes if guys aren’t doing it, it’s nail-biting. It feels like it takes years off your life. Tonight, I don’t think that was the case. I had a lot of confidence in Alex out there, and even Andre and Florin, when was looking at the scores, I knew what they were doing and how they were doing it, and they did a great job.”
At the end, the crowd hung on every point. Ghilea had lost the first set 7-6, but won the second 6-3 and then rallied all the way back.
“Yeah, it’s just unbelievable,” Ghilea said. “I’ve just never played in these conditions. I’ve played to clinch before but I’ve never played in such a big crowd. It’s just a lot of pressure, but coach Roddick was backing me up every time and told me, like, what to do and to keep my head straight and it just didn’t matter the result, just focus on the result and I did that and in the end it paid off.
“I want to say sincere thanks to the fans here. It was just an unbelievable atmosphere.”
Ghilea said returning to the national championship match for the third year in a row is “unbelievable. I still can’t believe it yet. It’s just so, so hard to believe that you can do that in three years consecutive.
“I’m really proud of this team because we had a really tough year. We had really tough losses this year, and to be able to get into the final round this year, it just means that our program has gotten to the stage where we can play with anybody and we can have high expectations every time we go out.”