Take a good look at the group photo of Vanderbilt's men's tennis team that appeared on www.vucommodores.com -- the one taken in Athens, Ga. moments after Tuesday's NCAA Championship match. Coach Ken Flach and his team are posed around their national runners-up trophy.
Not a person in the photo is smiling.
Even though these amazing Commodores exceeded the expectations of everyone-- with the possible exception of themselves-- by advancing to the pinnacle event of their sport, the ultimate feeling Tuesday evening was one of deflation. Vanderbilt had come to Athens for one single purpose, to win it all-- and when all was said and done, they fell breathtakingly, heartbreakingly short.
Here's hoping that by now, the disappointment of losing Tuesday's thrilling match 4-3 to the Illini has passed, and that the squad has had a chance to look back upon the season and survey exactly what was accomplished. By now, hopefully, they're holding their heads high once again.
And well they should. What they did this past season has to rank as one of the greatest turnaround stories in Vanderbilt sports history. This was, one must recall, a team that went 1-10 in the SEC in 2002, and a program that had never won more than four SEC matches in a season. To turn that around into a 9-2 SEC finish, a 27-4 overall record, an SEC Tournament championship, and an appearance in the national championship event (only the second in school history in any sport)... is almost surreal.
Couple that with the baseball team's amazing worst-to-second turnaround, and the men's golf team's appearance in the NCAA Championships... and suddenly Vanderbilt fans are having more fun than they would seem to have any right to. (Suddenly Vanderbilt has three men's teams that their women's teams can be proud of!)
When I informed my wife Monday night that Vandy would be playing in the men's tennis title match, she asked, "Well, Vanderbilt should be good in a sport like tennis, shouldn't it?" You would think so, hon, but before the miracle run of the last two weeks, only a hard-core few Vandy fans could even tell you the coach's name, or even name off one player besides Bobby Reynolds.
Suddenly all that's suddenly changed. It's been a long time coming, but in his seventh year as head coach, Ken Flach has built Vanderbilt into a national power. And the fans are suddenly catching on. Quite a few of them made it down to Athens Monday and Tuesday.
Lots of casual fans consider tennis a dull sport-- especially when measured next to high-profile sports like basketball or football. But folks, lemme tell ya, when a collegiate match is tied 3-3 and all eyes turn to one singles match, the drama becomes as thrilling and compelling as that of any sport. And that's exactly what happened this week in the Dores' final two matches.
In Monday's semifinal, Chad Harris turned in simply one of the guttiest performances ever registered by a Commodore in any sport. With the team's match riding on his, Harris fought back through two match points, two rain delays, and one dead-bird delay to defeat UCLA's Marcin Matkowski for the 4-3 win. The epic match took four hours and 42 minutes.
Before Tuesday's finals match against undefeated, top-seeded Illinois, no team had even scored three points in a match against the Illini. The Commodores won the doubles point, but quickly fell into a precarious spot when all six players lost their first singles sets. Reynolds and Harris came back to win matches, but when Lewie Smith finally fell to Chris Martin in a battle of steel wills and nerves, the big trophy was lost.
The loss came as a blow to a team whose confidence was absolutely soaring. Once Vanderbilt put away Florida in the SEC Tournament on April 20, Flach had his team convinced that it could beat anyone. And it almost, almost did. But the palpable disappointment over losing in the Finals was a telling measure of just how far this team had progressed.
How was Flach able to effect such an incredible turnaround in just one year? "I found a Russian doctor who developed an unbelievable potion," said Flach Monday. "It's called hard work."
"Coach Flach has been unbelievable," Bobby Reynolds told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. "He's not just a coach; he's almost like a dad or a brother. I felt something the first time I talked to him. I don't know what it was, a bond or something. But that had a lot to do with [my decision to come to Vanderbilt]."
Reynolds, the top-seeded singles player in the country and the most outstanding player in the tournament, stayed in Athens to compete in the singles championship. Though he could easily turn pro now if he so desired, the junior told the Journal-Constitution that he planned to return for his senior year no matter what.
All six players, in fact, in the singles and doubles lineup plan on returning for another go-round next year. In 2004 the Commodores will be poised for another run at the NCAA Championships (which will be held in Tulsa, Okla., in case you want to start planning now).
Here's hoping that by now the team has found a way to smile again-- their dominating performances all season certainly brought plenty of smiles to the faces of Vandy fans nationwide.
Talk about this story at our Future Revenue and Olympic Sports Message Board
Contact Brent at firstname.lastname@example.org