In the Spring of 1997 myself and four teammates from the tennis team embarked on a road trip from the coast of South Carolina to Athens, Georgia to see the Bulldogs take on the Kentucky Wildcats. With the exception of one of us, we had never been to UGA but knew they had an incredible tennis team, so with great excitement we piled into the car and began the journey. We stopped in Augusta to buy lottery tickets (since South Carolina had none) and I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. I really needed to win one of those scratch off games or I was in for a very long trip.
After giving my five dollars to the great state of Georgia we continued with our journey, off Interstate 20 and onto a two-lane highway. It seemed like the longest 60 miles ever on that road. When we finally arrived at the Dan McGill Complex we were in awe.
To put it in perspective we all played for a college with a few metal benches and one set of portable bleachers that were never full and here we were entering a stadium that sat nearly 5,000 fans. And these weren't normal fans…these were Georgia Bulldogs. The place was RED…nothing but RED.
We found our seat amongst the screaming (and high spirited) students. On court three was Steven Baldas, court two was Eddie Jacques, and on court one was John Roddick. These three were incredible…some of the most amazing tennis I had ever seen live.
There was nothing like this at any of our matches.
Kentucky had won the doubles point and captured a couple of other matches on courts 4 and 5. Hisham Hamida was playing on court 6 and, like he did so often that year, won in straight sets. Steven Baldas won on court three. We all like to joke about Steven because the first thing he did after the match was take his shoes off…typical Aussie fashion.
Eddie Jacques also lost at number two, but boy was he impressive. He was so fast and took the ball so early that it was literally hard to keep up with his match. On court one John Roddick and Cedric Kaufman played the final and deciding match. The fans were so into it…the players were so into it….the coaches were…well you get it. These guys did not look like they belonged in college tennis. The Bulldogs ended up losing the match but the University of Georgia left an impression on me that I will never forget.
I finished my career, went to Graduate School at South Carolina and now coach at Middle Tennessee State. I can tell you first hand that the experience that I had at Georgia is not indicative of the rest of college tennis. Georgia is special…it is a special program. Forget the three national titles, plenty of schools have those. There's something special going on at the University of Georgia.
For instance, right now the Georgia Men's Tennis Team is ranked #2.…the Women #1 in the latest NCAA rankings. However, if you look at the individual rankings Georgia is just not that impressive. The Men have two players ranked in the top 50 in singles and no doubles teams in the top 30...yet as a team they are #2 in the country. The Women have three players in the top 50 and one doubles team in the top 20...yet as a team they are ranked #1 in the country. The coaches preach playing as a team and winning and losing as a team. In return the players get the job done…year after year.
The Georgia Tennis program is a model for the rest of the universities in the country. No one has better facilities. The outdoor stadium seats 4,500 people. The indoor stadium seats 1,200. Plans are in the works to build $3 million locker rooms for the players. Construction is not yet scheduled to begin and already the program has raised $840,000.
This is insane in college tennis.
The coaches are the best in the business. Manny Diaz has won two national titles for the Men and have led the Bulldogs to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 13 years with top five finishes as their final result each of the 12 years. Diaz's teams have won two NCAA and eight SEC titles and finished runner-up in the NCAA five times (1989, 1991, 1993, 1997 and 1998).
Women's Head Coach Jeff Wallace's accolades include two national championships, a three-time National Coach of the Year recipient and four-time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. With a career record of 358-87, his .804 winning percentage is best among active Division I coaches. Georgia has appeared in 15 straight NCAA Tournaments and advanced to the 'Final Four' eight times. Only once during his time as coach of the Lady Bulldogs has the team failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, and that was his first year back in 1986.
This year the teams have seen continued success. The Women beat then #4 ranked Vanderbilt University in the finals of the National Indoors on February 10th of this year to gain their third national indoor title since 1994.
Then, the women beat Emmanuel College 7-0 without giving up a single game in all the matches. In my wildest dreams I never though anyone could beat a team that bad. The men have seen similar success. They had an impressive run at the National Indoors before losing to now #1 ranked Illinois.
Friday the Men host Vanderbilt at 2:30 p.m., Sunday the Kentucky Wildcats roll into town for a 1 p.m. match. Both matches will be held outdoors. On Friday the Women travel to Nashville for a very important match-up against #2 ranked Vanderbilt.
Will the men and women be able to get the rare national title sweep? With coaches like Wallace and Diaz nothing is unlikely in Athens.