May 26, 2010
BY DREW EDWARDS
ATHENS, Ga. -- Facing Southern California's Jaak Poldma in the NCAA men's tennis finals, Rhyne Williams' first set in the No. 3 singles match was something of a blur.
"His opponent really jumped on him. We probably told Rhyne a little too much strategy, probably," men's coach Sam Winterbotham said, "instead of just letting him go out and figure it out. Then he was able to actually figure it out and calm those nerves."
Williams surrendered just three more games and won his match. But the Vols couldn't follow suit, falling to the Trojans 4-2 - and falling just short of the program's first national title.
Just moments after the match, addressing the crowd at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex at the University of Georgia, Winterbotham promised his team would win learn from Tuesday's loss.
The main takeaway for the Vols, who next season return all but two players who took the court against Southern Cal, will be how to handle a match like Tuesday.
And that includes Winterbotham himself.
"I think I'll learn to be a better coach," Winterbotham said. "I think tonight is a great example of me not knowing what to do. The talent we have in this team was fantastic. They came together as a team and they did everything right as team. I think they got nervous tonight in a stage where I needed to be able to calm those nerves and turn them around. I don't think I was able to do that.
"I'll certainly learn that."
Williams was able to do that in the No. 3 singles, but J.P. Smith struggled to turn the tide against Robert Farah in the No. 1 singles. After breaking Farah's serve early in the first set, Smith went on to lose the tiebreaker 7-3.
"I think both guys were struggling a little bit with the nerves," Winterbotham said. "When it got close in the end of the first set there, Farah played a little better. I think JP continued to be a little nervous. That's what we learned. They both tried as hard as they could. They both wanted to win as badly as they could. But USC handled that situation better."
The Trojans (25-3) have been there before.
Tuesday's win marked USC's second straight national title, and it knocked off top-seeded Virginia - the only other team to beat the Vols this season - in a semifinal match on Monday.
Meanwhile Tennessee (31-2), which stormed through the SEC undefeated and swept the SEC tournament, hadn't been in the NCAA finals since 2001.
"It's the first experience for the guys in this situation," said Smith, who begins play in the singles tournament this week as the top seed. "It's kind of something that you have really be there to understand the moment. It's something you work for the whole year. I'm pretty disappointed in myself.
"Once I got to Athens, I didn't really play the way I've been playing the whole season. When I got to Athens, it kind of hit me, the severity of the moment. I'm very lucky to have one more year. I'm not going to let this happen again."
The Vols are hoping to find themselves in a similar position next season - at least until the trophies are handed out.
"Next year, we're going to have another phenomenal team," said Williams, who finished the season 39-6 and on a 15-match winning streak. "I feel like we can bounce back and learn from this. Maybe in this situation next year, we'll have a little more experience and hopefully we can take the title next year."