May 24, 2003
Senior Vilmarie Castellvi of the University of Tennessee Lady Vol tennis squad saw her run in the NCAA Singles Championship come to an end Saturday, as rookie Amber Liu of Stanford knocked the veteran out in the title match, 7-6(5), 6-2. Castellvi came into the contest as the tournament's No. 1 seed and the nation's top-ranked player, while Liu held a seeding of fifth and a rating of fourth. The match was played on the University of Florida's Linder Stadium Courts at Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville, Fla.
Castellvi and Liu were no strangers to one another heading into the contest, as it marked their fourth meeting of the 2002-03 campaign. Liu handed Castellvi her first loss of the year in October in the second round of the Riviera/ITA All-American Championships in Pacific Palisades, Calif. The next two meetings, however, belonged to Castellvi. Less than one month after their match on the West Coast, Castellvi dispatched of Liu in a three-set battle in the Omni Hotels Intercollegiate Indoor Championships in Farmers Branch, Texas, by a 6-7(1), 6-1, 7-6(4) count. Castellvi took their bout in January for the singles title at the Collegiate Tennis Kickoff in Las Vegas, Nev., by a score of 6-4, 6-3.
Liu came out a bit shaky in the first game on Castellvi's serve. Three of the four points claimed by Castellvi during the frame came as a result of unforced errors by Liu. Castellvi had a 15-30 lead in the next game thanks to a pair of backhand winners, but Liu recovered with a couple of winners herself on the forehand side, and a miscue by Castellvi knotted the first set at 1-1. The tone for the set had been decided at that point-long, tiring rallies and capitalizing on the points that mattered most.
Liu tallied the first service break of the match the next game after three deuces. Castellvi led, 40-30, but could not convert on game point as Liu ripped a backhand crosscourt for a clean winner. Castellvi was up and down during the game, hitting winners to put the score back at deuce but giving Liu break opportunities with unforced errors. In the end, it was Castellvi's second double fault of the game and match that gave Liu the upper hand. The Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, native finished with a highly uncharacteristic eight doubles on the day, but she stated it was not the sun that bothered her.
"I just wasn't hitting my serve," Castellvi said.
Castellvi rallied to tie the first set back up at 2-2 with a break of Liu, who reverted back to her play in the opening game by beating herself. The next game featured a hold for Castellvi to put the match back on serve, 3-2, heading to the changeover. Neither player was able to break the other in the following two games, but the eighth game did not follow suit. Castellvi began grinding away on the rallies, forcing Liu to continuously hit one more ball. It worked to perfection and Castellvi was able to snatch the game at love with all of her points coming via Liu's errant shots.
With a sizeable 5-3 lead, Castellvi appeared poised to get the first set under her belt, but Liu would not go away that easily. The Cardinal freshman quickly put her opponent in a 0-40 hole, however, Castellvi was ready to mount a comeback, which was jumped started with a picturesque crosscourt slice forehand drop shot. Liu handed Castellvi the next point when she banged a return on second serve into the middle of the net. Still looking for one more point to send the game to deuce, Castellvi's hunt was dismissed when Liu dictated the next rally, keeping her foe pinned six feet behind the baseline until it resulted in Castellvi mishitting a forehand.
Castellvi was still hungry for the first set and took the first point of the next game, but Liu ran off four straight points from there for an easy hold. Trailing 15-40 on her serve in the ensuing game, Castellvi double faulted to give Liu a 6-5 lead. Liu, however, could not serve out the set, which sent things into a tiebreaker.
The first point of the breaker belonged to Castellvi when Liu tried to hit an off forehand but could not get enough elevation on the ball. Liu continued to stick to her strategy of keeping Castellvi deep behind the baseline and it was beginning to pay serious dividends, as she found herself with a favorable 3-1 margin. Castellvi managed to deadlock the tiebreaker, 3-3, for the first changeover after banging a running forehand passing shot down the line that Liu could only touch with the frame of her racket.
The tension in the match was now getting greater after every point, which was not helped by the fact that the first set was still completely up in the air. Suddenly, Liu decided to switch things up on Castellvi by looking to approach the net on every opportunity and her choice turned out to be a good one. Two of the four points she grabbed to win the breaker were put-aways at the net.
"I wanted to play aggressive in the match because I didn't want to let (Castellvi) dictate the pace of the match," Liu stated. "I came to the net a few times to change it up. I hit the ball hard on the backline. I wanted to try and keep her off her game. She is a great competitor, and I knew what she could do if she was able to play her style of game."
After an incredible opening stanza, it seemed as though the fans would be in for a real treat in round two, but that was not the case. Liu kept Castellvi on her heels the entire set, running her side-to-side and commanding the way the points would be contested. The closest the UT star would get was when she tied things up at 1-1. Castellvi was able to notch one more game to her credit after Liu ripped off four in a row before succumbing by a 6-2 score. Afterwards, Castellvi explained what happened to her game in the second set.
"(Liu) made me miss, basically," said Castellvi. "I was trying to finish the points early. In the first set, I didn't do that and she won the set. I tried to change my game a little bit. I tried to go for too much and started making errors. She played really consistent. I didn't try to do much, she just made me miss. She did that the whole match. During certain games it was always the same thing. I should have played smarter."
Despite the loss, Castellvi still finished her career with the Orange and White as the winningest player in school history thanks to a 140-51 record. She concluded her final season at UT with a 45-5 slate and won 34 of 36 matches during the spring season. Castellvi also went 20-2 against Top-25 opponents this year.
Castellvi will now return to Knoxville to finish two summer courses in order to earn her degree in marketing. Upon her graduation, she plans to train with longtime tennis pro Gigi Fernandez in preparation for her professional career. Fernandez was a top doubles player during her tenure on the tour, winning 17 Grand Slam titles and holding the world's No. 1 ranking eight times from 1991-1995. Currently, Fernandez is the head coach for the University of South Florida's women's squad.
Highlights of the entire NCAA Championships, which includes the team and individual tournaments, will be shown May 25 on ESPN2 at 2 p.m.