‘‘I’m going to retire from this game,’’ mutters UVA junior Jarmere Jenkins.
He roots around behind the heavy curtains hanging in front of the wall behind Court 7 at the Boyd Tinsley Tennis Center, the Boar’s Head Sports Club’s cavernous indoor tennis facility, searching for a stray ball and collecting his thoughts.
Jarmere Jenkins, UVA junior co-captain, is an explosive hitter who can overpower opponents and cover the court like a blanket. (Photo by Matt Riley)
At least that’s what it sounded like he was saying. Whatever he said, it was under his breath, not meant for the ears of the 1,070 spectators who had braved heavy snow to claim a spot on the hard aluminum bleachers overlooking the gladiator’s pit Jenkins was standing in.
His body language—shoulders slumped rounder than usual and the hair-trigger look in his eye—sent the clear message that the nation’s 10th-ranked college singles player was frustrated.
Jenkins found the ball, which Ohio State University’s 16th-ranked Chase Buchanan had fired past him just moments before, glowered at it, and stalked back onto the court. If the Cavaliers, ranked second best in the nation as a team, advanced, they would play top-ranked University of Southern California in the title game, with a chance to earn their fifth-straight national indoor team championship in front of the hometown fans.
The one-on-one battle between Jenkins and Buchanan was one of many that played out on Court 7 over the middle two weekends in January. For the first time in history, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) agreed to host both the men’s and women’s National Indoor Team Championship tournaments at a single facility, making for an early season battle royal between the nation’s best players.
Twelve women’s teams descended on Charlottesville from February 10-13, and UCLA walked away victorious on the final day. The operations team at the Boar’s Head had about a day to recover from a series of late-night marathons, before they had to gear up for the men. Five teams—Cal, UCLA, Pepperdine, Stanford and USC—made the exhausting journey from the West Coast to central Virginia to take part.
“We’ve been on Virginia time all week, setting our alarms early so we’ll be alert,” said Cal Head Coach Peter Wright, who brought 11 players with him from Berkeley. “Win or lose, you’re in a draw with the top teams. You find out a lot about yourselves and how you compete. We’re here to win, but whatever happens just motivates us for later.”
USC arrived as the top-ranked team in the nation, last year’s collegiate champion Steve Johnson flanked by a new partner in crime, the highly touted 6’4" German freshman Yannick Hanffman.
Peter Smith, USC’s easygoing, silver-haired coach, knows his team has a target on its back, and that nobody wants to win this tournament more than the home team. “You think a lot of things. That’s certainly one of them. You try to stay disciplined and play one match at a time. Virginia’s aware of us and we’re aware of them, but there’s 14 other teams we’ve got to deal with,” Smith said.
The tournament’s format was designed to make the trip worthwhile as an early season proving ground, with each team guaranteed three matches, win or lose, against the nation’s top competition. Wright’s Cal Bears, ranked No. 13 in the nation, fell to No. 4 Georgia on the first day. In the consolation bracket, Cal defeated No. 12 Pepperdine and lost to No. 8 UCLA, both teams they could have played without leaving their home state.
The rigors of travel are part of tennis life. While some players worked out on the court between sessions, others hunched over notebooks on metal benches in the gallery. They had homework to turn in when they got back.
The home court edge
Back on Court 7, Jenkins’ frustration is coming to a boil. Steady, cool-headed Chase Buchanan has taken the first set 7-5. This UVA team has never lost at the Boar’s Head, but things are beginning to look dark.
In a collegiate team match, there are seven points up for grabs. The teams play three doubles matches—the first team to win two matches taking a point. Jenkins and his partner, senior Drew Courtney, beat their opponents in their doubles match, but Ohio State won the other two to take the point.
Jenkins is a set down, and his team is facing the prospect of having to win four out of six singles matches to reach the tournament final against USC. That much distance now, between him and a showdown with Johnson and Hanfmann. A set down, not hitting spots, not seeing the ball well.
The fans love Jenkins, who moves around the court a little bit pigeon-toed, like Andre did. They’re trying to lift him. “C’mon, JJ!” and “You’ve got this one, JJ!”, bursting into wild applause as he slots a backhand volley into the corner, just past Buchanan’s outstretched racket. All six singles matches are going on at once, side by side, and the grunts mix with the pop of the balls and reverberate across the hard surface. As the games turn on decisive points, the numbers lighting up the large scoreboard tell the story.
Jenkins is right in the middle of all that, on Court 7 where the teams’ top singles players do battle and the row of bleachers courtside allows spectators the chance to see the players’ eyes dilate before they make contact. It should be an advantage for Jenkins. Former UVA stars Dominic Inglot and Samdev Devarrman—fixtures on the ATP professional circuit since graduating—are in his corner, calling out advice and encouragement from prime seats. Head Coach Brian Boland has turned trips to the Tinsley Tennis Center into a dreaded experience for opponents, in part because of the tight familial character of his team. He knows Jenkins feeds off of the older guys.
“Yeah, they love it. That’s why so many of us coach; the opportunity to build these unbelievable relationships, not only for four years but hopefully for a lifetime,” Boland said. “If you have great relationships with your current and former players, and you kind of set them up to accomplish the goals and dreams that they have for themselves when they take their first step off Grounds at the University of Virginia, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
Court 10 is less than 100 yards away from Court 7, but the atmosphere is a world away. Drew Courtney, a co-captain, has won his first set, and leads the second. Guatemalan junior Julen Uriguen has split sets on Court 12. Justin Shane is reeling on 11, to his left, but Courtney can only control the outcome of his own match. The 6’5" senior is from Clifton, Virginia, and his family has packed the nearby bleachers.
UVA coach Brian Boland knows how to juggle personalities. Here he shares a quiet word with senior captain Drew Courtney. (Photo by Matt Riley)
“It’s cool to have some familiar faces in the crowd that you can vibe off of,” he said later. “We have the best fans in the country. We appreciate it, and it’s so fun to be able to play in an atmosphere like this when they’re going crazy. It’s definitely an advantage.”
They are ecstatic when Courtney closes the match, earning Virginia’s first point. After he shakes hands with his opponent, he thanks the referee, walks up the courtside ramp toward his family, but stops short to exchange a few words with USC’s Johnson. The Trojans advanced earlier, brushing aside No. 4 Georgia with the same alacrity they displayed in dispatching early-round foes Duke and Tennessee.
As Courtney’s courtside exchange with Johnson proves, familiarity and friendship often cross team lines in the college tennis world. Most of the players have warred through the juniors, many of them traveling together to national tournaments and tour events. As a UVA fan you could consider Johnson the enemy. He finished the 2011 season ranked No. 1, one spot ahead of UVA’s Alex Domijan, and won doubles and singles points to help USC win the NCAA title over Virginia by a narrow 4-3 margin.
“Drew, Jarmere and myself…we’ve been playing against each other since we were 12,” Johnson said. “We’re good friends off the court, but on the court we put our friendships aside for a couple of hours.”
Shane gets behind early in the second set, leaving Uriguen in a lonely third-set showdown on the far end of the building, two empty courts between him and the rest of the action. Ohio State is up 2-1 with four sets of players still on the court.
All for one, one for all
On Court 7, Jenkins has turned the match around. His frustration boiled over early in the second set, prompting him to take an angry swipe at a ball that sent it skyward so hard and fast that it penetrated the space-age material covering the ceiling, lodging fast. It’s a temper tantrum, and Jenkins may see a bill for the repairs later in the semester, but as he stares at the hole he has made, his frustration dissipates. At 5’11", he is not as tall as many of his teammates—Alex Domijan, one court over, is a towering 6’7"—but Jenkins looks more like a cornerback than a tennis player.
As the matches on the lower courts wind down, UVA Associate Coach Andres Pedroso has taken up station near Jenkins.
“Beat him with your legs!” he urges. “Not one ball with your hands! This guy cannot handle you!”
Jenkins rares back and powers a serve past Buchanan for an ace. While Pedroso amps up Jenkins, Boland is on a different tack with the other players, offering a quiet word of advice to freshman Mitchell Frank then to Domijan, during the changeover. For the more experienced player, a fatherly hand on the shoulder and a single word of encouragement are sufficient.
“The way you would coach Justin versus the way you would coach Mitchell or Alex or Jarmere is just different,” Boland said. “It’s an individual sport, so you have to learn to adjust to each player and what makes it work for him, rather than them all adjusting to your personality.”
With six matches going on at once, college tennis coaches have to be master jugglers. Often, that means the older players essentially coach themselves so the younger players can get the attention they need.
USC’s Smith handles his players with a seemingly avuncular laissez-faire that disguises a meticulous attention to detail, sauntering between courts in his grey hoodie, asking a player to set up one step to his left to take away a wide serve in the ad court. He has arranged special meals to accommodate Hanfmann’s gluten-free diet, and keeps careful tabs on the mental state of players, even when they’re on the sidelines, waiting. “Tennis players aren’t used to being up in the stands cheering,” he said, with a wry smile. “They’re by nature very selfish creatures. When they have to be helping and supporting, it’s a good lesson for them.”
As a returning champion and a senior team captain with USTA men’s singles events under his belt from the offseason, Johnson hasn’t gotten much advice from Smith, who knows he’s got the even-tempered, big-hitting Hanfmann batting second in his powerful lineup.
UVA co-captains Jarmere Jenkins and Drew Courtney have a near-telepathic bond that helps them excel in doubles play. (Photo by Matt Riley)
Hanfmann strikes a deep and heavy ball off both sides and moves well, like Wayne Ferreira. Johnson is twitchy, explosive, and ferociously competitive. His killer instinct and serve and return games separate him from the pack. He can also be petulant on the court. During a dispute with an official in his first-round match, he approached the chair and drummed a tennis ball between the aluminum rungs beneath the chair umpire’s feet to emphasize his point. His periodic quips continued throughout the match, until the official declared firmly, “That’s enough,” ending the onslaught. On Sunday, a second official felt his wrath, which can be directed at himself at times, but which doesn’t seem to bother him so much as it lets him dictate terms to the world. The chair umpires endured his theatrical shrugs of dismay and sarcastic badgering with stone-faced equanimity, and Johnson won both matches in straight sets.
“I felt that I hit a serve that was in,” he said after his Friday match. “And I wanted to voice my opinion that I felt that it was good. We all miss some, so I don’t want to say I was upset.”
If coaches must deal with different personalities in different ways, chair umpires must do the opposite: The integrity of the game demands that they render rule of law to both the feisty and the polite in even-handed fashion. Head Referee Scott Dillon said he works to make sure his crew rotates frequently throughout the long weekend, so they don’t end up seeing the same player over and over again.
“Each works four or five matches per day, but they’ll never do more than two in a row before taking a match off,” Dillon said, adding that he maintains absolute faith in the professionalism and endurance of his officials, nearly all of whom are certified for the highest levels of tennis and have worked pro events like the U.S. Open.
“Other than the NCAA tournament, this is the premier event in college tennis,” Dillon says.
End of the fight
We’re back on Court 7, and a glance at the scoreboard tells Jarmere Jenkins that the situation remains dire. Uriguen and Domijan, first-set winners, have both dropped second sets and moved to decisive thirds. Jenkins has turned the momentum in his match, beating Buchanan 7-5 in the second, and he’s jumped out to a 2-1 lead in the third.
USC team captain Steve Johnson, defending national singles champion, lets out a primal scream after downing Georgia ace Sadio Doumbia at the NTI. (Photo by Matt Riley)
An inordinate amount of pressure has fallen on freshman Mitchell Frank, who lost 7-5 in his first set and is tied at 6-6 with Ohio State’s Peter Kobelt.
Frank likes to grind.
“I try to be as physical as possible, see if [my opponent] can stay with me,” Frank said, grinning confidently beneath a mop of sandy hair. “Some can, many can’t. I try to do a lot of training and lots of fitness and I feel like I’m in better shape most times. I go out there and play my game and try to make the other guy see how much he’s willing to suffer.”
Frank entered the weekend as the ITA’s top-ranked singles player, in part because he’s a top talent in the college game, but also because more experienced players often skip early-season team events to play the pros. Johnson, for instance, took Belgian Steve Darcis—the ATP Tour’s 66th-ranked player—to tiebreakers in both sets of a close loss at the SAP Open on February 13, just days before arriving in Charlottesville. Frank has played the same types of tournaments.
“I’ve already been out on the Futures Circuit for a while, finding out what that’s like,” Frank said. “You have to get out there and lose a lot, win a lot, and keep coming back. That’s what it takes to be successful at this level and continue to improve going forward.”
Kobelt wins the tiebreaker, tilting the balance 3-1 in Ohio State’s favor. Uriguen, Domijan, and Jenkins all have to win for UVA to go through.
A college tennis match might only last an hour but it could also last more than three. As soon as one team wins its fourth point, the contest ceases, and the matches still in progress end mid-set.
“When I was playing, it wasn’t unusual for matches to go seven hours,” said Tim Delaney, a spectator who played for Georgia from 1975 to 1978. “We played all of the singles matches first, and doubles didn’t start until after everyone had finished.”
Delaney drove down from Washington, D.C., to visit with former teammate Manny Diaz, now coach of the No.4 Bulldogs. He said the sudden-death format works a little better for a crowd-friendly event like the NTI.
Maybe for the fans, but it still stings when Ohio State’s Blaz Rola finishes Domijan on Court 8, leaving Uriguen and Jenkins, each leading their respective matches, helpless as their opponents drop their racquets mid-point and run to join the ecstatic Buckeye mob surrounding Rola.
The Cavaliers, ranked No. 2 in the country, have just lost their shot at an unprecedented fifth straight NTI title and suffered their first home loss since the 2006 NTI semifinals in front of their home fans.
For the Cavaliers, the ACC season still looms, with a trip to Blacksburg on February 26. The league tournament starts April 19, followed by the NCAA championships in May. Boland expects his players to use the loss as fuel. USC is gunning for a fourth straight NCAA title, and nobody is likely to forget that their most recent, in 2011, came at the direct expense of UVA.
“I think you learn the most about people when they go through adversity, and when they take losses. You can’t let it drag you down,” Boland said. “From an emotional standpoint, a lot of our players have come a long ways, starting with Jarmere Jenkins, and it goes right on down the lineup. We can manage our expectations so we can make sure the guys have both feet on the ground—ready to work hard, handle adversity and get the most out of tennis and school every day.”
USC coach Peter Smith, seen here conferring with freshman sensation Yannick Hanfmann, is a master at wedding individual play to team goals. (Photo by Matt Riley)
Ohio State surprised everyone at the NTI, doing everything it could to add USC to its list of victims in Monday’s final. After taking the doubles point again, the Buckeyes backed the Trojans up a step.
“We got punched in the face in doubles,” said Smith after the match. “I told them if you get punched in the face, you better get up and punch back.”
USC lost two singles matches, but rallied back from the brink to win. Johnson handled Buchanan, and then Hanfmann—the freshman with tour-ready groundstrokes—bounced back to win a deciding third set, giving USC its first NTI title since 1988.
“You never like to watch someone else doing the celebrating,” Boland said philosophically. “But we’ve been the ones celebrating more often than not.”
Jarmere Jenkins has absorbed his coach’s philosophy. He has his eyes on the prize of an NCAA title, and a likely rematch with USC. He knows he and Courtney will have to face Johnson and Hanfmann in doubles if that happens, and that he and Johnson, as top singles competitors, may be destined to meet in individual combat as well.
“I would have had to play him,” Jenkins said, a fire smoldering in his eyes even in defeat. “We grew up together, and we like to see each other do well, but as UVA playing against USC, we don’t really care too much for each other.”
Johnson doesn’t back down from the implied challenge, either, though he’s diplomatic as he stands beside Jenkins.
“We’ll bang heads,” he said, with a wicked grin. “And then right after, we’ll let it slide and go out and be buddies again.”