Championship Sunday

It couldn't have been much more dramatic, this Ole Miss-Alabama men's tennis match won by the Rebels, which meant a ninth consecutive SEC West title for Ole Miss' winningest and most consistent sports program.

All eyes were on court three singles for the last hour of what wound up being nearly a five-hour match between the two next door rivals. Chris Thiemann of Ole Miss was playing Michael Thompson of Alabama.

Ole Miss led the nation in college tennis attendance last season. There is a growing fan base and a hard-core group of supporters in the stands and pavilions every time there's a match. As with every sports team's fan base, they range from retirees to Ole Miss students, locals to some out of towners who make most matches.

Chris Thiemann

There've been a lot of matches played on the Palmer-Salloum courts since the center opened in 1991. In its 20 years, few have matched the intensity and singular importance of the Rebs and Tide Sunday.

It wasn't a national headliner like some have been here in the past when Ole Miss and Georgia went after it or the Rebels and Florida met. It wasn't an NCAA Regional for the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

But with the match tied 3-3 overall and only one match left to decide it, none have been more competitive than the one we witnessed Sunday.

Coach Billy Chadwick, one of the nation's best at what he does and has been for years, has publicly admitted this is a rebuilding year for his program. You'd have to admit that winning the SEC West outright in a rebuilding year certainly means the program isn't down all that much.

The Rebels are ranked among the nation's top 20 currently, and they are headed back to the NCAA Tournament. But to have any chance to host, they need to win two matches this week. Both are at home. Both are huge and won't be easy.

Ohio State, ranked second in the country, plays here Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. Mississippi State plays here Saturday at 3 p.m. immediately following The Grove Bowl.

Chadwick wants the nation's best tennis fans to be there in full force. And for those of you not necessarily fans of college tennis, he wants you there, too.

Admission is free. And the event, with its drama and importance, is priceless.

Chris Thiemann, whose twin brother Marcel plays No. 1 singles for the Rebels, showed the guts at No. 3 singles the Ole Miss men's tennis program has always been made of. Time and time again, we've seen last matches on turn out in the Rebs' favor because of the talent and commitment of the players.

I think of Dave Randall of Tupelo and now Jackson who got it all started in this era. Johan Hede - Steady Hede we called him - from back in the mid-90s. After his last season in 1997, Hede was the winningest Rebel of them all with an amazing 135 singles wins in his career. Alex Hartman, one of the most celebrated Rebels ever and a multiple All-American. And Catalin Gard, saluting the crowd and bowing to fans in every direction on Senior Day in 2005, having been ranked No. 1 in the nation for 24 straight weeks that year, one of the all-time fan favorites.

Catalin Gard

And a multitude of others who paved the way for days like Sunday.

The Rebels are defending SEC champions, but they won't repeat. They are defending SEC Tournament champions, and they likely won't win that crown again this year either. Other teams, especially from the SEC East, are an impressive group this time around.

When Chris Thiemann finished off Thompson Sunday, the water cooler bath he got from fellow teammates on the south end of court three was welcomed relief. Chris had come off the court to visit the UM trainer just one point shy of his victory because of leg cramps after an entire afternoon of play. There was tension in the air, and the question was could he finish? Could he maintain things long enough to finish Thompson off in the tiebreaker of the third set?

He lost the next point but found a way to win it 7-5 in the tiebreaker and put another large piece of hardware in the growing trophy case for Ole Miss men's tennis.

The Rebels won't be favored against the Buckeyes Wednesday. But with effort like we saw Sunday, and a determination to finish the season strong and give themselves a chance to host again, Ole Miss might just manage to find a little of the magic it's known for in this sport.

Then comes State on Saturday, and a 24-match win streak against the Bulldogs is on the line.

It's another important week of tennis at Ole Miss, where winning and championships continue.

(Later this week, a look at the SEC West women's tennis champions, the Ole Miss Rebels, who won at Alabama Sunday to claim that title outright.)


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