When Ole Miss freshman Devin Britton entered NCAA Individual play, most considered his ability to simply qualify for the tournament as an accomplishment in itself.
In all honesty, expectations are rarely high when newcomers make the singles draw, as each match presents yet another decorated challenger with a wealth of experience in Division I competition. The tournament matches best against best, with those who can maintain a high level of play in consecutive days slotted in the final pairings come championship weekend.
Freshmen aren't supposed to win national championships in their first year – especially when said freshmen should have just graduated high school in weeks prior.
But with his three-set victory over Ohio State's Steven Moneke Monday, Britton defied the odds and became the first freshman to win a championship in NCAA Individuals since 1996.
"It is a pretty awesome feeling (to win the national championship). It's great for Mississippi tennis," Britton said. "It was just an unbelievable tournament. I couldn't be happier."
"He pulled it off," Ole Miss head coach Billy Chadwick added. "He's the man. It was a unique run, but the thing is, he's the type of player, when he gets on a roll, he's hard to stop. He had some big serves and applied pressure. We're extremely excited."
Britton becomes the first American-born player to win the NCAA singles title since Alex Kim of Stanford in 2000. He is also the first freshman since 19-year-old Cecil Mamiit of USC (1996) to win the national title and first non-seeded player since Luke Smith of UNLV in 1997.
The Mississippi native is the youngest of the three all-time freshmen to win the singles title, which includes 19-year-old John McEnroe of Stanford in 1978. Both players respectively were their program's first-ever NCAA singles championship finalists.
"Today is one of those really special moments in Ole Miss tennis history," said Chadwick. "Devin really showed a lot of maturity in beating a top-10 player in the country from Ohio State. Devin's one of those players where he's at his best when it matters most."
Britton also became the first player in school history to win a national championship in singles. He did it against the finest competition in the country, with wins over various players three-to-four years his senior.
After downing Wisconsin's Mortiz Baumann in the first round, Britton met Virginia's Dominic Inglot in the second. Although Inglot ranked No. 14 nationally, Britton was able to break the Cavalier's No. 1 player for a three-set victory.
The Freshman All-American entered the Elite Eight as one of only two underclassmen left in the field. He followed with a win over Rice's Bruno Rosa (ranked 300th in the ATP) in straight sets Friday to advance, and then became the fifth Rebel ever to advance to the Final Four with a win over Stanford sophomore Alex Clayton.
The momentum never ceased, as Britton then downed Arkansas' Blake Strode, a three-time All-SEC honoree, in straight sets for a berth in the finals.
And the rest, as they say, was history.
"When you get a national championship, that says it all," Chadwick said. "You took down everyone in Division I tennis. It came down to the last set against a tough opponent. To be a freshman, from Mississippi, who is just now scratching the surface of his potential, is very impressive. It's a great day for Ole Miss and a great day for the state of Mississippi.
"I think Devin made a smart move coming to college."
Indeed he did.
A member of the national runners-up and a senior tri-captain for Ohio State, Moneke became just the second Buckeye in program history to advance to the semifinals of the singles championship.
He downed Virginia's Sanam Singh 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 Sunday, after Singh had beaten the nation's No. 1 player in Arnau Brugues of Tulsa in straight sets in the Final Four.
But with his fearless run throughout individual play, Britton had inserted his name amongst the top players in the country. Suffice to say, no player would stop Britton from realizing destiny.
"Against (Moneke), Devin knew he had to be ready to go the distance. He had to break him down," Chadwick said. "He knew from the beginning he had a lot of pressure to hold his serve. If you don't (hold serve), you're beat. I really think the match changed when Devin started picking up his return. It put a lot pressure on (Moneke) and gave Devin the advantage."
With the championship win Monday, Britton notched his 14th consecutive victory and finished with an overall record of 28-9. Similar to previous matches, Britton fell behind early, only to battle back and claim the match.
This time, it was a 3-6 loss in the first set. But seemingly on cue, Britton countered with a pair of decisive 6-2, 6-3 sets to end Moneke's 22-match winning streak and claim the title.
"After I lost the first set, I said to myself, ‘keep fighting and hopefully, I can make the match go to a third set.' I learned a lot from that," Britton said. "I definitely surprised myself and didn't see this coming. I just took it one match at a time. I didn't have a lot of mental lapses and I think that helped out a lot today."
Chadwick said Britton's improvement mentally over the course of the postseason was a catalyst in the freshman's title run.
"Earlier in the season, Devin was kind of known as streaky guy who would have some lapses," said Chadwick. "Opposing teams knew he would have a mental letdown at some point in the match, which would keep it close. That's the area where he really showed the most improvement during the postseason."
After accomplishing the highest individual mark in collegiate tennis, Britton will now be faced with a difficult decision.
Undoubtedly, Britton is fated to embark on a professional career in the future, but the newly crowned No. 1 player in the country will have to choose whether to begin that quest now or remain in college for another year.
While Chadwick would love to keep his star freshmen in the fold in 2010, he'll allow Britton to make the life-changing decision on his own.
"That's one of those things where it has to rest with Devin," Chadwick said. "I feel for him to stay, opposed to playing full-time, he knows there are areas he has to improve on. He'll need to improve his feet and develop more consistency off the ground. What he's going to need to do is hit it hard in the weight room. He's still a kid.
"It's much like a person being drafted out of high school. Do you head to the minors or enter college where there's a controlled environment? He can play in front of the home crowd and continue his education or decide to pursue his career professionally. He has a big decision coming up, but Devin's very level headed. I know he'll make the right decision."
However, the future is a discussion for another day, as Monday marked a new era in Ole Miss men's tennis.
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