The Florida Gators women’s tennis team had lined up across nets with Vanderbilt twice already this season, each of those matchups ending in heartbreak for the Gators.
On Monday, with stakes greater than ever before, the Gators showed that their hearts were very much intact with what may be their finest hour ever.
After falling behind 2-1 to the Commodores and appearing very much in danger of taking a third loss, the Gators got a shot in the arm from upperclassman leaders and stormed back on three singles courts over one sensational stretch of play to prevail for a 4-2 triumph that sends Florida to a Tuesday match for a national championship.
Florida had fallen to Vanderbilt in a regular season matchup that cost the Gators their 26th SEC title, and then again in the SEC Tournament final — but the Gators had lost the doubles point in the former of those contests, were without Josie Kuhlman in the latter, and played both of those matches in Vandy’s hometown of Nashville.
Florida won the doubles point on Monday in dominant fashion, though, with the team of Anna Danilina and Ingrid Neel waxing the nation’s No. 1 team of Astra Sharma and Emily Smith by a 6-1 count and the pairing of Brooke Austin and Kourtney Keegan securing a 6-4 win of their own. And given that Florida’s only loss with a doubles point win all year had come to Vandy in the SEC Tournament, it appeared that Florida had a chance to control this third match against the Commodores from first serve to match point.
Yet they ran into trouble early in singles play. Forced by inclement weather to play in an indoor facility at the University of Georgia, the Gators and Commodores were crammed onto just four courts, rather than the six that typically allow for the full complement of singles matches to play out simultaneously. That kept Keegan and Austin, playing No. 5 and No. 6 singles, out of the first hour and change of singles play.
And despite Kuhlman playing No. 2 singles, Vanderbilt took advantage, with straight-set wins from Sydney Campbell over Kuhlman and Christina Rosca over Neel that swung the match to 2-1 in the Commodores’ favor.
Worse yet, Danilina squandered a one-set lead by dropping her second set, and Belinda Woolcock, Florida’s No. 1 singles player, lost her first to Sharma in a tiebreak.
At about 9:30 p.m., Florida was down, and no Gator was leading her match by more than the single game (and break) that Keegan had gotten to open up the No. 5 singles match. The road to four points and a match victory seemed daunting at best, even though Woolcock had taken a 4-0 lead in her second set.
An hour later, Florida had won — because, from 9:30 to 10:30, the Gators put on one of the most impressive displays of tennis in the history of a program with six national championships.
First, Danilina and Woolock shifted into gear in their respective matches. Danilina won her third set in a brisk 6-2, her best performance against Vandy’s Emma Kurtz in eight sets this spring. That tied the match at 2-2 at about 10:12 p.m. — a mere 10 minutes before Woolcock completed her stunning destruction of Sharma in the second and third sets by blanking the nation’s No. 4 singles player in the final set.
Woolcock won 12 of her final 14 games, and led by two breaks in the second set before holding serve to finish out at 6-2. It was a fine redemption for a first set in which she rallied from 5-2 down with a pair of breaks, but could not break Sharma or prevail in a tiebreak over the final three games.
Keegan, meanwhile, dismantled Fernanda Contreras — who had handled her in straight sets in the regular-season meeting, and topped occasional singles contributor Spencer Liang in straight sets in the SEC Tournament — in short order, with Keegan bageling her foe in the first set in just over 30 minutes in the first set. And Austin was up in the second set, having taken the first in a 6-2 clip over Georgina Sellyn, who at that point had dropped all five of her singles sets against Gators this spring.
At 10:25, just less than an hour removed from what looked like dire straits, Austin and Keegan were more or less racing to clinch the match for the Gators.
At 10:30, Austin crossed the line, completing Florida’s phenomenal comeback.
THIS! Brooke Austin with the 6-2, 6-3 clincher! pic.twitter.com/zzM8gZ0EMQ— Gator Women's Tennis (@GatorsWTN) May 23, 2017
The win is a substantial one for the Gators, a vanquishing of a new nemesis that had stood between Florida and title often in the last three years. Florida owned a 46-2 record against the Commodores entering the 2015 season, but Vandy took three matches from the Gators — in the regular season, SEC Tournament, and NCAA Tournament — that spring, and had thus won five of its last six matches against the Gators entering Monday.
To put that in perspective: Vandy has handed Florida exactly half of its mere 10 losses over the last three seasons.
But now the Commodores are done and dusted, leaving only one match between the Gators and a seventh national title.
That match will, naturally, feature an old nemesis: The storied Stanford program that Florida has dueled with on the court for much of this decade.
But while the Cardinal’s historical accomplishments dwarf the Gators’ feats — Stanford is the defending national champion, and has three times as many team titles as Florida, the only other Division I team with more than two women’s team national championships — there is ample reason to believe that these Gators can do what the 2012 Gators did five years ago this Tuesday, and down Stanford for a crown.
Apart from Florida playing out of its mind on Monday, the Gators have a resounding win over the Cardinal under their belt this season: A 4-1 triumph in Gainesville in February, in which Keegan did not compete and the Gators’ only loss came from Liang at No. 6 singles. (Florida also led in both of the matches that would go unfinished.) And based on proximity alone, Florida is likely to have a larger cheering section among those in attendance on Tuesday, even on Georgia’s campus — which, of course, was the venue for Florida’s last national final victory.
Stanford is, of course, talented and experienced, and has churned through its right side of the bracket like Florida has chomped through the left side, with the Cardinal downing No. 2 seed North Carolina and No. 3 seed Ohio State — in a 4-3 epic on Monday that took more than four hours and stretched past midnight — to reach Tuesday’s match.
After Monday night’s show of resolve and dismissal of a longtime foe, though, it’s hard to feel like the Gators will give the Cardinal anything less than their absolute best on Tuesday in Athens.