Dawgs play in front of crowd for NCAA Title

ATHENS – John Isner, the number one player in the country, has been getting a little emotional lately.

He had heard for the last three years what it's like to play in Athens for the NCAA Championship – the passion, the setting and most notably the crowd, which is raucous, rambunctious and rarely experienced. Playing the NCAA Tournament in Athens is a little like watching the silver britches come out on a Saturday night, according to Georgia's head coach Manuel Diaz.

"It's a football game like-atmosphere," the longtime coach said.

It was something Isner had been looking forward to his entire college career. That atmosphere, however, has been a sore spot for some in the college tennis world. Georgia, a perennial power, has never won a national title outside its home courts. Coaches soured on the Bulldogs hosting the affair in the early 2000s after the program won two national titles in three years.

Still, the Dawgs didn't have success every season. From 1977 to 2002, Athens hosted the men's championships all but three times with Stanford winning the national title 13 times in the Classic City in that stretch. But after Georgia's two national titles in three seasons many in the college tennis world said: "no more."

Homeless, the NCAAs went on a tour of lesser-known tennis spots. First College Station, TX hosted in 2002. Then Tulsa, OK hosted in 2003. College Station hosted once more in 2005 before traditional power Stanford hosted last year. And while the NCAAs have returned to Athens it's only for a short time. This is the last season the NCAAs will be held in Athens, at least until the NCAA opens up for competitive bidding in two years.

Even those fighting the Dawgs' mighty crowd are pulling for Athens, or some place with an Athens-like atmosphere to host. The problem is no other sites have the attendance Athens does.

"This is what college tennis needs," Virginia head coach Brian Boland said after his team fell to the Dawgs 4-1 today. "We need to get college tennis to embrace big crowds. People need to quit whining about (Georgia's home court advantage). I think it's very positive."

"We love it," said Virginia's number one player Somdev Devvarman. "I don't think it was harder or easier to play. I enjoyed playing out in it – you can't let it affect you."

Still, playing the Bulldogs is a very difficult task with fans who are not always accustomed to tennis etiquette seated on the front row.

"Playing Georgia, with that big crowd, it can make you start to doubt yourself out there," said UCLA's Benjamin Kohlloeffel, who fell along with his team to the Dawgs on Saturday night – the most rowdy crowd to date.

"Whoa that crowd," Bruin coach Billy Martin said. "It's not easy to play here, but it's not unfair either."

Most college teams play in front of 300 fans, at most, during their regular matches. The NCAAs in Athens are a major departure from that.

But for the Georgia players, particularly Isner, playing in front of 4,000 fans at home is finally becoming a reality after a very long wait. For too long Isner, has heard from former Bulldog greats what its like to play tennis in the football-like atmosphere. Isner says he's trying to take full advantage of it.

"The crowd makes all of this more special for me," Isner admitted. "I've been waiting four years for this – it's what I have been dreaming about, and I have been real emotional this week."

Isner said he was pausing during his doubles match on Saturday night against UCLA in order to take it all in.

"I was soaking all of it in," he said with a smile.

Isner and company can bask in championship sunlight tomorrow with a victory over surging Illinois. It would be the Bulldogs' fifth – all at home in front of its adoring crowd.

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