Tennis Heads To National Team Indoors

ATHENS - The No. 2-ranked University of Georgia men's tennis team is riding a wave of success that began in September and has carried through the beginning of the spring season. After a fall campaign in which the Bulldogs won five individual tournament titles, the squad is off to a perfect 4-0 start in dual-match play. The team's undefeated record and success at the SEC Indoors has surely prepared the Georgia squad for an even bigger challenge: the USTA/ITA National Team Indoor Championships.

Their flawless record has rewarded the Bulldogs with a No. 2 seeding at the upcoming grand-slam event, held in Seattle, Wash. Feb 17-20 and hosted by the University of Washington.

This year's tournament features nine of the top 10 teams from the latest Fila Collegiate Tennis Rankings, including last year's champion, the Baylor Bears. With Florida seeded first at the tournament, SEC teams hold the top two spots. Georgia will face 15th-seed and Big 12 contender Colorado in its Feb. 17 first-round match at 5:30 p.m. EST.

"There are a ton of good teams in the tournament, but before we think about anything else we have to take care of business against Colorado in the first round," said head coach Manuel Diaz. "We are trying to stay focused in order to do what we need to do."

"At this point, I truly believe we can beat anyone," said senior captain Strahinja Bobusic, currently ranked No. 12 in the ITA singles rankings. "Our fitness level is very high and we are well-coached. We're working to keep each other motivated and confident, as well."

The Team Indoor Championships is the ITA's longest running event, as the first tournament took place in 1973. Despite participating every year except 2003, it is the only Grand Slam title Georgia has never won. In fact, no Southeastern Conference team has ever been crowned ITA Indoor Champions. Georgia has, however, made it to the final five times ('82, '94, '95, '97, '98) and reached the semifinals a total of seven times. The Bulldogs are fifth in most tournament finals appearances (four) and third in overall wins (52).

"The team indoors is the only national title we have never won," Diaz said. "Coming into this year I thought we would have as good of a chance to win this event as we have ever had."

While injuries have plagued the squad throughout the indoor season, Diaz is optimistic about the depth of the team and players filling in for their teammates as needed.

"The guys that are healthy are the guys that will play for us," he said. "We're thankful for what we've done in the first four matches and we're looking forward to going into battle with them."

Bobusic has been impressed with team morale despite the shuffling of teammates and some players seeing limited playing time due to injury.

"We can't control injuries," said Bobusic. "We need to focus on what we can control. We try not to think about setbacks too much and get on with the job at hand. The guys have kept their heads up and kept going."

The team kicked off the spring at the 2006 SEC Indoor Championship in Lexington, Ky., Georgia came into the event with high expectations and looking to repeat the success of the 2005 SEC Indoors in which John Isner and Antonio Ruiz won the doubles title. Entering this year's tournament, the ‘Dogs were picked to finish first in the conference in the annual SEC coaches preseason poll. In addition, three players had garnered national attention by earning rankings within the top 100 in singles. Junior John Isner (No. 2), Bobusic (No. 12), and junior Matic Omerzel (No. 96) all established themselves as some of the nation's top players.

In the first day of play, the then 3rd-ranked Bulldogs made an early statement, cruising through the draw as five players advanced past the first round of singles. Isner and senior Bobusic, seeded first and second respectively, each recorded resounding victories. Isner blew by South Carolina's Pedro Rodrigues in straight sets with a score of 6-1, 6-2 while another Gamecock fell at the hands of a Bulldog when Bobusic downed Dmitry Babenko 6-0, 6-1. The Georgia victories kept coming as the day went on with senior captain Antonio Ruiz, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, defeating Tennessee's Ben Rogers 6-3, 6-0. Omerzel then sailed to the second round via a 6-2, 6-3 win over Vanderbilt's Nick Cromydas. Sophomore Luis Flores, making his collegiate debut, got off to a strong start as he prevailed over Nestor Briceno of Florida by a score of 6-3, 6-4 to punch his second round ticket.

Day two of singles competition saw similar success. Bobusic reached the quarterfinal round by way of wins over Ryan Sherry of Florida and Florent Girod of Mississippi State. Ruiz also made his way to the quarterfinals by defeating Alabama's Joseph Jung by a score of 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. His second win of the day came in a 6-3, 6-4 win over MSU's Ivan Bjelica. Omerzel's road to the quarterfinals included victories over Tennessee's Rawl Martin and Eric Claesson of Ole Miss., while Flores continued his inaugural collegiate tournament success, reaching the quarterfinal round with wins over Agostinelli and Robby Poole of Ole Miss. Top-seeded John Isner reached the round of 16 but was upset by last year's SEC Indoors Singles Champion, Ken Skupski of LSU. Isner battled the defending champ to three sets, but eventually fell by a score of 7-5, 2-6, 2-6.

Georgia's dominance was evident as Bulldog netters comprised half of the final eight players. In the quarterfinal round, Omerzel topped fellow Bulldog Flores, only to face and defeat second-seeded Bobusic, 6-3, 6-4, in an all-Bulldog semifinal showdown. The finals matchup was set after Ruiz, taking on Skuupski in his semifinal match, was forced to pull out of competition due to a shoulder injury. Omerzel put up a solid effort in the final, but eventually fell to Skupski, 6-4, 6-4. The match was decided in favor of the defending champion by just one break in each set.

On the doubles side, Georgia's remained at the top of its game. In day one, the No. 1-seeded duo of Bobusic and junior Ricardo Gonzalez started off the round of 32 by toppling Martel Campbell and Kevin Dessaur of LSU 8-3. Later, Florida's Sherry and Chris Brandy were eliminated by Omerzel and Flores in another 8-3 match. Defending champions Isner and Ruiz escaped the first round with a 9-8 win over James Cluskey and Paul White of LSU to advance.

Day two's round of 16 was highlighted by Bobusic and Gonzalez's 9-7 defeat of Alabama's Jung and Thibaudeau. Omerzel and Flores followed suit by eliminating LSU's 24th-ranked duo of Danny Bryan and Colt Gaston. The final round of 16 match saw Isner and Ruiz advance with an 8-3 victory over Babenko and Yevgeny Supeko of South Carolina.

The quarterfinal round, also played on day two, concluded with three more Georgia wins. Kentucky's Agostinelli and Marcus Sundh were no match for 8th-seeded Isner and Ruiz, falling short in an 8-3 loss. Bobusic and Gonzalez recorded a win over Hensel and Rogers of Tennessee. Finally, Flores and Omerzel eliminated Kentucky's 40th-ranked tandem of Nate Emge and Alex Hume by a score of 8-6. With the wins, Georgia captured three of the final four doubles spots, guaranteeing the Bulldogs a doubles pair competing for the championship title.

"If our doubles play was any better it would have been perfect," said Diaz. "I am very proud of our doubles teams. It is a phenomenal accomplishment for us to have three teams in the semifinals. I feel that we are really developing our doubles game as a team."

In semifinal competition, one Bulldog duo eliminated another in Omerzel and Flores's upset-win over Bobusic and Gonzalez, 8-5. Isner and Ruiz then went on to beat 10th-ranked Skupski and Mark Growcott by the same score. The contest marked the fifth meeting in two years between Isner and Ruiz and the LSU tandem, with Georgia winning every match.

Ultimately, the championship match pitted Bulldogs Isner and Ruiz against Omerzel and Flores. Due to injury and the intra-squad nature of the finals, the competition has been postponed and will be played at a later date.

"Success at the SEC Indoors provides a lot of confidence," Diaz stated. We worked very, very hard and I think we laid a good foundation for our squad as far as developing some chemistry. It was great seeing the hard work pay off."

In addition, the tournament provided a chance for players to get a feel for the competition they will be facing throughout the spring.

"We used this tournament as a chance to scout new players who have just joined teams this semester," Bobusic said. "It gave a sense of what to expect. At the same time, it was a great warm-up for us heading into dual-match play."

Following the strong performance at SEC Indoors, the Bulldogs headed into dual-match play beginning on January 29th in Athens. Georgia held the visiting No. 32 Lousiville Cardinals scoreless on the day, recording a 7-0 victory. All six Bulldogs won their singles matches, with Bobusic's 7-5, 6-2 defeat of Jakob Gustafsson at the No. 3 spot serving as the match clincher.

Georgia had taken a 1-0 match lead after doubles play. Isner and Bobusic started things off with a win at the No. 1 position. Louisville would not easily give up the doubles point though, earning a split with a win at the No. 2 spot, leaving the point dependent upon the outcome of the No. 3 match. After falling behind 5-3, the Bulldog duo of Gonzalez and local standout freshman Josh Varela rallied back to secure the doubles point with an emotional 9-7 toppling of Slavko Radman and Tony Teufel. It was Varela's first collegiate dual match competition.

"It was inspiring," Diaz said of the point-clincher. "They played with a lot of enthusiasm and they really had to play their best to get that point."

In their first road test of the season, Georgia faced No. 27 Clemson on the Tiger's home courts on February 3rd. The Bulldogs walked away with a 5-2 victory highlighted by Isner's three-set, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 defeat of No. 41 Sander Koning at the No. 2 singles spot. Following wins by Flores and Ruiz at the No. 2 and No. 3 spots respectively, Bobusic posted a near-flawless defeat of Clint Boling. The senior dropped only one game in the 6-1, 6-0 victory. With the match already clinched for Georgia, Clemson picked up its two points with wins at the the No. 4 and No. 6 spots.

"Overall it was a solid win," said Diaz. "The only disappointing part was that in both singles and doubles, once we had it clinched, the remaining matches lost," he said. "But, that's the reason we play them out. Hopefully we can learn something from those matches and continue to improve individually and as a team."

Again, the ‘Dogs had taken an early lead by securing the doubles point. Georgia earned the point by way of wins at the No. 1 and No. 3 Bulldog positions. Isner and Ruiz set the tone with an 8-6 win over Jarmaine Jenkins and Ryan Young at the top spot. Bobusic and Gonzalez clinched the point with their 8-5 takedown of Brett Twente and Paul Koenke.

The final home weekend resulted in two more Georgia wins, extending their perfect record to 4-0. On February 11th, the visiting East Tennessee State University Buccaneers, entering the match with a 4-3 record, fell to the Bulldogs by a score of 6-0. The match began with all three doubles contests ending in an 8-6 result in favor of the Bulldogs. Isner and Flores downed the tandem of Juan Crosa and Oscar Posada and the No. 1 spot. Doubles competition was highlighted by the return of Colin Purcell from a hip injury. The comeback reunited the junior with Bobusic to restore the duo ranked No. 6 in the country. The duo handled the Buccaneers' Felix Insaurralde and Lisandro Picardo. Playing in the third position, Gonzalez and Varela snagged another win with their victory over Enrique Olivares and Sebastian Serrano.

With the doubles point in hand, Georgia continued its command of the competition through singles play. Second-ranked Isner beat Insaurralde at the No. 2 spot by a score of 6-3, 6-2. Twelfth-ranked Bobusic battled Crosa through a seven-point tiebreak in the first set and went on to blank the Buccaneer freshman in the second set to seal his 7-6, (3), 6-0 victory at No. 3. At the No. 1 position, Flores posted a second-set comeback following a seven-point tie break loss in his first set against Posada. The sophomore went on to win in three sets, 6-7, (3), 6-4, 6-2, clinching the match for Georgia. The No. 5 match between Omerzel and Picardo was suspended when the Bulldogs clinched the match. The fourth singles point of the day came off the racquet of Gonzalez at the No. 4 spot, as he made quick work of Olivares in a 6-3, 6-3 triumph. Varela continued to improve his collegiate record with his 6-2, 6-3 defeat of Serrano at the sixth position closing out the sweep.

The following day, on February 12th, the Bulldogs welcomed Furman University to the Lindsey Hopkins Indoor facilities. Georgia looked to extend its flawless record while the Paladins (1-5) were seeking only their second win of the season. Demonstrating why they are the No. 2-ranked team in the country, the Bulldogs dominated the Paladins in a 7-0 win. Flores provided the match-clinching singles win for the second day in a row.

Doubles play started with the No. 2 position tandem of Bobusic and Purcell recording an 8-4 defeat of Brian Crook and Bo Ladyman. The doubles point was then clinched in the top spot, Flores and Isner toppled Greg Maarschalk and Ben Pauluhn 8-3 to lock up the doubles point. The third doubles match of the day saw Gonzalez and Varela drop a tight match to Will Kieffer and Scott Kahler by a score of 8-7 (7-4).

Following the doubles win, Georgia saw all of its singles players record victories. Returning to the No. 1 position, Isner quickly defeated Pauluhn 6-3, 6-2. Gonzalez increased the score to 3-0 in favor of the Bulldogs with his 6-1, 6-2 win over Ladyman. In the No. 3 position, Bobusic earned 6-1, 6-2 wins over Maarschalk. In the No. 6 position, Varela rallied through the second set to stamp a 6-4, 6-0 victory. Finally, Purcell's match at No. 5 was the closest of the day, but the Louisville, Ky. native managed a win over Brian Cook by a score of 6-4, 6-4.

Following the ITA Indoor Championships, the Bulldogs will return home to face William and Mary Sunday Feb. 26th in Athens at 1:00 p.m. The competition marks the first outdoor match of the season.

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