Women’s tennis ‘Clean Old-Fashioned Hate’ bout goes to Georgia

Georgia Tech and Georgia's women's tennis teams square off at Tech's Ken Byers Tennis Complex on Wednesday. Tech's Kylie Bilchev is in the foreground. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Credit: Ken Sugiura

Georgia Tech and Georgia's women's tennis teams square off at Tech's Ken Byers Tennis Complex on Wednesday. Tech's Kylie Bilchev is in the foreground. (AJC photo by Ken Sugiura)

As a freshman at Georgia, Morgan Coppoc was subjected to a most vile form of defeat. It was in February 2018 that Coppoc and the Georgia women’s tennis team were toppled by archrival Georgia Tech 4-2, the second year in a row for the Yellow Jackets.

“You learn a lot more from losses than you do from wins,” Coppoc, now a senior, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But especially that, that was a terrible feeling.”

Coppoc was speaking late afternoon Wednesday. The Bulldogs had just vanquished the Yellow Jackets 4-0 on a windswept day at Tech’s Ken Byers Tennis Complex. The season’s ultimate goals remain unachieved for a team ranked 10th nationally (Tech is 28th). However, Coppoc can complete her career, now in its fifth season, secure in the knowledge that she will depart with four consecutive wins over the Jackets.

“It just means so much,” Coppoc said. “Being a Georgia Bulldog means you have to beat Tech. It’s like, Tech or nothing.”

Among the seven sports in which Tech and Georgia annually compete head-to-head (football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, softball and baseball), women’s tennis is distinguished by the consistent excellence that both sides have brought to Clean Old-Fashioned Hate.

First with coach Bryan Shelton and now Rodney Harmon, Tech has made every NCAA Tournament since 2000 and in 2007 delivered the school its only NCAA team championship in any sport.

UGA’s NCAA streak dates to 1987. Bulldogs coach Jeff Wallace’s team owns two NCAA titles and has reached at least the tournament quarterfinals 18 times in the past 23 trips. Wallace owns the most wins of any active women’s college tennis coach in the country and is second all time.

On Tech’s dark-blue courts Wednesday, seven of the 12 singles players were ranked in the top 120 nationally (four in the top 60) and four of the six doubles teams were in the top 50.

“It just means so much. Being a Georgia Bulldog means you have to beat Tech. It's like, Tech or nothing."

- UGA tennis player Morgan Coppoc, after the Bulldogs topped Tech on Wednesday

“In all of our sports, it’s a great rivalry, and this is a great college women’s tennis rivalry,” Wallace said. “Bryan Shelton did a great job of bringing this program up, and Rodney’s done a great job of continuing it. We know we’re always in for a battle, and it’s always going to be a big-time match and a lot of fun.”

Perhaps 250 fans supporting both teams sat in bleachers overlooking the six primary outdoor courts. Below a partly cloudy sky, the pops of forehands and the shuffling of feet mixed with applause, a modicum of heckling and the primal screams of players hitting winners or bemoaning shots into the net.

The wind, which blew consistently from the south with intermittent gusts of perhaps 30 mph, swept up clouds of pollen off the court and wrought havoc on the matches. If balls weren’t hit with measured force – and sometimes even if they were – the wind knocked them down, pushed them cross-court or sailed them well past the baseline. Mishits off the frame were commonplace.

“This was a crazy one,” UGA senior Meg Kowalski said. In her career, “this has got to be top three windiest matches ever. But that’s the fun part. We’re playing a huge rivalry match, we’re all getting into it and the conditions are awful. That’s what makes it fun.”

Georgia gained the early advantage by winning the doubles point. The teams split the first and second doubles matches, leaving the point to be decided by the third doubles teams of Gia Cohen and Ruth Marsh (Tech) and Guillermina Grant and Kowalski (UGA).

In the single-set format, Cohen and Marsh took a 5-3 lead, one game from securing the match and the doubles point for the Jackets. But Kowalski and Grant rallied, taking the final four games to win 7-5.

“We had a chance in doubles,” Harmon said. “We weren’t able to get the doubles point, which I think the momentum could have helped us a lot.”

Needing to win three of the six singles matches to secure the team win, UGA bolted from the gate, winning the first set on five of the six courts. Georgia’s Ania Hertel closed out her match at No. 6 singles over Cohen for the first singles point (6-3, 6-1), followed by Dasha Vidmanova over Ava Hrastar at third singles (7-5, 6-2). With Georgia up 3-0, Kowalski sealed the team win with a hard-fought win at No. 5 singles over Kate Sharabura (6-4, 7-5), finishing with a forehand cross-court winner after Sharabura had approached the net.

“She’s a great net player, came to the net a bunch in the match,” Kowalski said of Sharabura. “I finally snuck one past her.”

Like all nine players on the UGA roster, Kowalski came to Athens from beyond the state’s borders (she hails from Chicago) but has made the rivalry her own.

“It’s just something about playing with a ‘G’ on our chest and how special it is to have this rivalry and not only play for our team and play for ourselves, but play for the University of Georgia and play for the fans because, obviously, we take this rivalry to heart,” she said.

Tech fell to 11-6, while Georgia improved to 11-3. The Bulldogs hold the series advantage 28-6.

“Well done by (Georgia),” Harmon said. “We’ve just got a lot of work to do before we have to play Clemson on Saturday.”

Wednesday closed the books on regular-season head-to-head meetings between the archrivals for the academic year. In a highly rare outcome, Tech bettered UGA with four victories (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, softball and baseball, counting the Tech baseball team’s series victory as one win) to the Bulldogs’ three (football, men’s tennis and women’s tennis).

The spoils of Wednesday’s victory were modest. As dusk approached, Georgia players, coaches and staff ate dinner out of California Pizza Kitchen carryout containers just up the road from the Tech tennis complex. The Bulldogs dined by two team vans parked on Fowler Street on Tech’s campus, one of them idling. The women perched themselves on the stone masonry foundation supporting a metal fence that ran along the sidewalk.

The drive back to Athens awaited, followed by an 8 a.m. Thursday charter flight to Columbia, Mo., for an SEC matchup with Missouri on Friday. For the moment, along with a carb-heavy meal, there was time to savor staving off a hated rival.

Said Coppoc, “It’s just been a great feeling, because no one wants to lose to Tech.”