UGA tennis heads to Illinois with titles in sights

Georgia’s men’s and women’s tennis teams are headed to Urbana, Ill., this week for the NCAA Championships. Both arrive with very realistic chances of securing yet another national championship for their respective storied programs. But each must overcome significant challenges to make it happen.

Coach Manny Diaz’s No. 2-ranked and third-seeded Bulldogs (24-4) drew Oklahoma (21-6) in the round of 16 and face off at 10 a.m. Thursday. Coach Jeff Wallace’s fourth-ranked and fourth-seeded Lady Bulldogs (23-3) get No. 13 Clemson (15-7) at 1 p.m. Friday.

Here’s some of the storylines as the Bulldogs set out on their quest to bring a ninth outdoor NCAA title back to Athens:

Carrying on: This was supposed to be somewhat of a homecoming for Georgia's No. 1 men's singles player, KU Singh. Singh transferred from the University of Illinois to play for the Bulldogs in January 2012. But because of a "philosophical difference" with UGA's coaches, Singh elected to quit the team and return home to India three days before the NCAA tournament began.

Georgia’s answer to that sudden development was to move each player up one position in the singles lineup (Singh did not play doubles) and move on. Initially at least, the Bulldogs regrouped nicely. They dispatched Binghamton and Northwestern by 4-0 scores in the first and second rounds this past weekend and arrive in Urbana “confident” and “united.”

“We didn’t blink twice when the whole KU thing happened,” sophomore Nathan Pasha said. “We’ve won without him before; we’re just going to have to do it again. We have a talented young team. They’re mature, and we’ve gotten more and more mature throughout the season as we’ve gone through ups and downs. So we’re just taking our lessons learned from before, and we’re going to try to build on it. We have more confidence than ever right now.”

Pasha and his teammates have a lofty tradition to uphold. The Bulldogs are making their 35th overall appearance in the NCAA tournament, 30th in a row, and own six NCAA championships. They won back-to-back titles in 2007-08 and are 28-4 in this event the previous five years.

Familiar faces: The Bulldogs did not get a benefit from the draw. Not only do they face a 14th-seeded Oklahoma team that spent much of the season ranked in the top 10, but the Sooners (21-6) are much more familiar with Georgia than most teams. They're coached by former Bulldogs John Roddick (head coach) and Bo Hodge (assistant).

“It’s great to see those guys doing well and they’ve got a great team,” said Diaz, who coached both men. “They’re doing a tremendous job and are a very tough team. On the court, we’re going to be doing business. We’re going to play hard.”

Roddick, whose younger brother is the well-known pro Andy Roddick, played for the Bulldogs from 1995-98 and earned All-American honors three times. He’s in his fourth season with the Sooners and has led them to a 75-20 record. He served as Diaz’s volunteer coach from 2006-08, winning two NCAA team titles during that span. Hodge was a four-time All-American at Georgia (2001-04) and helped it win the 2001 national title.

Wagland into limelight: Since Georgia signed him out of New South Wales, Australia, Ben Wagland was expected to be the next big star for the Bulldogs. But thanks to Singh's untimely departure, he has found himself unexpectedly in the spotlight at No. 1 singles.

The freshman moved into that position for the NCAA tournament’s opening rounds last weekend and promptly won every match he played in singles and with Hernus Pieters in doubles. Wagland heads to the round of 16 with an overall record of 25-7 in singles including a six-match winning streak. He is 27-9 in doubles was named the MVP of the SEC Tournament.

“Ben’s been playing great and really just improving by the week if not by the day,” Diaz said. “So I’m really confident in his abilities to handle whatever gets thrown his way.”

Herring gets it done: The Lady Dogs have a young phenom of their own playing No. 1 singles. Sophomore Lauren Herring has enjoyed a meteoric rise at Georgia. She's 15-3 while playing the top spot in dual-match play and 35-5 for the season. She enters the NCAA tournament on an eight-match winning streak and ranked No. 5 in the nation.

“From fall to now, Lauren is probably our most improved player,” Wallace said. “She was in the 40s, 50s and 60s last year and played 2 or 3 for us and now she’s jumped up to No. 1 and is top 5 in the country. She’s just done a remarkable job, worked hard, and it’s well-deserved.”

Doubles trouble: Besides their overall depth and talent, one thing that makes the Lady Dogs particularly formidable is their doubles play. Georgia features the nation's No. 1-ranked doubles team in Kate Fuller and Sylvia Garcia. Not coincidentally the Bulldogs have won the doubles point in 23 of 26 matches this season.

“They’ve had an amazing year,” Georgia coach Jeff Wallace said. “Those two are always hungry in practice. They always come out and play hard. They’re fun to watch. They compete hard, and their strategies are good. They’ve won all these matches, but it’s not like they’ve won them easily. They’ve come back in several and won.”

Earlier this week Fuller, a junior, was named the Southeast Region’s recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award. She and the freshman Garcia have played together only since January.