Sometimes it's all about the feet. And the shoes.
It was Sunday at Ole Miss tennis.
That's right. Feet. And shoes.
They're an important part of tennis, or any sport for that matter. Good footwork. You hear it all the time. It's essential in basketball, football, track, baseball, golf. In what sport is it not important?
The freshman duo of Bram ten Berge and Jakob Klaeson won the deciding doubles-point match 9-7 over their Auburn counterparts at No. 3. Down 5-7, the Rebel tandem ran off four straight games to clinch the point for the Rebs after Catalin Gard and Eric Claesson had won at No. 1 doubles.
"We were down 5-7 and still playing pretty well but couldn't get the break," said ten Berge. "Then we broke and made it 7-6, and I was serving. I just didn't feel any pressure and we were able to tie it at 7-7."
Maybe he didn't feel any pressure because his partner, Klaeson, was dancing all around. That's right, dancing. Well almost. You kinda had to see it to understand it.
He was perpetual motion out there in those last few games - when he was receiving serve, when he was not, or when ten Berge was serving next to him.
Moving left and right. Back and forth. Up and back. Waving his hands and his racket.
It almost got to the point that I thought the ump might call a distraction warning, if there is such a thing.
Whatever works, I guess, and when the young duo won their match, the Rebels led 1-0 in their quest for the Sweet Sixteen.
"When Jakob is jumping around like that, it means he is comfortable," ten Berge said of the happy feet Klaeson displayed.
And it clearly made their Auburn Tiger foes uncomfortable. Again, whatever works.
So it came as no surprise when Klaeson was not in the singles lineup later that he was called on to take care of the Rebels' feet.
Only minutes into the singles match, Klaeson is in the locker room going through box after box of shoes.
"Freddie needs different shoes," Klaeson said of No. 5 Rebel singles player Fredrik Aarum. "Something's wrong with his."
So Jakob finds some new ones and races out to court five.
Freddie's feet feel better, but his game unfortunately didn't show it as he became the Rebels' only casualty of the match.
That came after Gard had totally annihilated Auburn's No. 1 player 6-1, 6-2. Made it look easy. Didn't take long.
So the Rebs were up 2-1, and shortly thereafter Erling Tveit at No. 3 singles won his point to give UM a 3-1 lead.
But you need four points to win a college tennis match. The Rebels needed a win at either No. 2, No. 4, or No. 6 singles.
At this point in a big match, the crowd starts to figure out which one they feel will be the deciding match, which one they feel is the most exciting, the one they feel they can actually help push the Rebels over the top.
So most of the packed house in attendance surrounded court four – the eastern most court used in matches toward Bishop Hall and the Paris-Yates Chapel – where Juan Pablo Di Cesare was trying desperately to pull the Rebels through.
It was quite a spectacle as the 5-foot-11 Rebel faced off against his tall and lanky counterpart who had to be every bit of 6-8. But more than that, it was a battle.
Leading 5-2 in the third and deciding set, Di Cesare, with his parents and younger brother from Argentina looking on, lunges for a ball, falls, and appears to turn his ankle.
The crowd went silent. The match was right there to be won. Worse still, Di Cesare is flat on the ground.
But he sits up quickly, and luckily all he did was blow out his shoe. Slid across the court, sliced his shoe, cut his sock, and scraped his foot.
"I need some more shoes," said the man who some call Juan, some call Pablo, and others call J.P.
So Gard, standing at the end of the court watching through the fence, takes his shoes off immediately and is ready to give them to his teammate. But instead, Rebel shoe man for the day - Klaeson - races to the locker room again to find Pablo a replacement pair so he can wrap this thing up for his team.
Moments later one shoe then the other is thrown over the fence and onto the court toward Pablo as the fans, some three to four deep on three sides of the court, laugh at the scene.
With new shoes and renewed energy and focus, Pablo ends it quickly for Ole Miss. His feet did not fail him. The Rebels were headed to the Sweet Sixteen as hundreds roared their approval.
"I didn't play very well at the beginning," J.P. said. "I was nervous at first. But Coach (Chadwick) came to the court and talked to me and gave me some good advice."
Pablo always has a group of fans, mostly students, who support him visibly and vocally every match. They were there Sunday for him.
"They are friends of mine outside the team," he said. "They are very supportive."
They helped Pablo stay steady on his feet when things got a little rough and rocky under them. There for him, just like his teammates who joined fans surrounding his court at the end of the day as the Rebels stood firmly, their feet to the ground, their thoughts still on a national championship just over a week from now.
That Gard wasn't the last to finish his singles match but was the first to finish was maybe inappropriate. But the reaction from player to fans and vice versa was not.
When Gard hit a passing forehand shot past Tiger No. 1 Gabor Zolton Pelva for victory in his match, the crowd roared to its feet as the other five singles matches played on. Gard looked up, took a bow, clapped hand to racket in mutual admiration all around the setting.
Catalin Gard has always loved Ole Miss fans and said so. They've loved him back in return.
Gard: "I'm glad that I could win today in my last match at the Palmer-Salloum Tennis Center. I'm a little bit sad. I'm very sad, actually. It's been a great four years, and I want to thank everybody for supporting the Ole Miss tennis team. We're very happy to advance to the round of 16."
After Gard and Claesson finished their doubles match, Cat moved over to court three to help the freshmen Klaeson and ten Berge in their match – quietly urging and instructing as a good captain should.
When Pablo needed some encouragement near the end of his match, Gard was there to audibly pick him up, not raising his voice to cheer but to offer some points to help push him through to victory.
This team knows what Gard means to them and says so.
"He's very important to us," said Pablo simply.
There was a feeling around the tennis center today that this was the ending at home of a very special era.
"In 10 years working with Ole Miss tennis, this is the most emotional I've been about a player," said Ole Miss associate athletics media relations director Kim Ling, basically unable, as were others, to explain why they feel the way they do about Gard.
"These are the reasons why," Chadwick the coach said, having no trouble finding the words to explain it. "He has been such an instrumental force on our team. We've won four SEC West championships in a row, and also two SEC overall titles in a row with him as our No. 1 player. He might as well be holding every one of those trophies. The thing that he has been able to do is that he took over the No. 1 position his junior year. By doing that, people got to know him.
"His junior year he's the SEC Player of the Year. His senior year he's the No. 1 player in the country. He took it up a level. We've had great players here through the years, and every one of our No. 1 players has been a great player. But Cat has been such a mainstay for the past two years. That's been the key. That's why everyone felt like they did today."
Gard to Chadwick as they walked toward the locker room following the Romanian's final match on the Palmer-Salloum Center's court. "Coach, I haven't lost a match in the last two years on that court."
"Yes you have," Chadwick said, getting a stunned look from a disbelieving Gard. "I beat you once."
Pause. Silence for a second. Laughter from both.
They knew there wasn't a bit of truth to that. And off they went into the building – star student and teacher.
Now it's on to College Station and a date Saturday with the Texas Tech Red Raiders, all the while hoping for four straight wins to tennis glory by a week from this Tuesday.
Rebel tennis moves its feet toward Texas
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