Sooners (@OU_MTennis) Booming After Big @ITATennis Indoor Championship Run
Jeff McMillan, Tennis Atlantic
Last week in my ITA Indoor Championships preview I listed the favorite as Virginia followed by the challengers USC, Baylor and Georgia. I ignored the #2 seed Oklahoma. And by ignored I mean that I listed them as the “pretender” of the top ranked teams in the nation. I did not deny that Oklahoma is a top team or that they had a serious shot at a title come May, but what I did deny was that they could win the ITA indoors event in Chicago… How wrong I ended up being.
OU Sooners were sure to let me know soon after the match.
Hats off to Oklahoma for winning the title, the first in program history.
Now how did this championship happen for OU? How did this team get over the hump and win it all when they were widely expected not to? It can be summed up in two words: Alexandru Ghilea. To truly understand the impact of the sophomore from Neamt, Romania, you must go back to last season. The Sooners of 2014 had the strongest top 4 in the nation: Alcorta, Alvarez, Harris, Webb. It was a fearsome foursome that every team in the nation feared. But early in the season 5 and 6 hindered Oklahoma. An assorted of combinations of Nick Papac, Austin Siegel and Peerakit Siributwong were tried but none of them were able to produce wins in the lower parts of the line-up. Many college tennis enthusiast believed this would be the Sooner’s undoing come crunch time vs the other top teams and the dreams of being elite would eventually fade. Now this is the part where Alex Ghilea enters the fray.
Late in the year, Ghilea stepped up and started winning at #5 and giving OU that extra boost, none more so important than the clutch 6-3 4-6 7-6(5) win over UCLA’s Karue Sell which propelled the Sooners to a massive upset of national darling UCLA in the NCAA semifinals.
The 2015 Sooners look even better than the 2014 Sooners and it is because of Ghilea. He is now one of the best #5 players in the country, ranked #63 nationally and undefeated in this dual season. In Chicago, he rolled past Babic of Ole Miss and dominated Jack Murray of UNC, which is not an easy task. Vs Baylor Ghilea rallied from 4-6 2-5 down and ripped off 11 straight games to beat Mate Zsiga 4-6 7-5 6-0 which ended up being the clinching point. And vs USC The Romanian again clinched the match, this time outlasting Max De Vroome in a 3 set battle.
It looks as if Ghilea will continue to be a rock at #5 for Oklahoma this year, as they will attempt to lift both national title trophies in one season. He is not without help of course. Dane Webb has stepped up big-time and become a real senior leader for the Sooners; he has made obliterating opponents somewhat of a routine as of late. It’s a treat for tennis fans everywhere whenever Axel Alvarez hits a forehand and if you are blessed enough to see it in person you will see that he is probably the most ATP-like player in college tennis. He provides strength at #2. Jose Salazar looks to be a stable #6 which is a big upgrade from a year ago at the #6 position. And of course, Andrew Harris at #1 who has improved a lot from last year. Spencer Papa has not got off to a flying start yet at #4 but one would expect him to get things going as the season progresses.
Can Oklahoma, to borrow a phrase from European soccer, “Do the Double”? It will be an interesting outdoor season to watch. Virginia and USC aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, with both teams will be rearing to take back #1 in the nation. And you know that the Baylor Bears would love to hoist the trophy on their home courts come this May in Waco, the site of the NCAAs. A few outlying challengers will have their say as well.
Oklahoma still has a very tough season ahead. And its starts in just a few days on Friday in College Station vs Texas A&M, who despite not qualifying for indoors is still a salty team, shown by their win over Ohio State a few weeks ago. How well Oklahoma recovers from the emotional high of winning in Chicago and going back to slugging it out in College Station on Friday will show a lot in regards to what this team is all about. I will be there to witness the match between Oklahoma and Texas A&M on Friday (barring rain). You can follow my coverage of that match by following my twitter @jjjtm_clem_uiw . I will give updates as well as provide captured videos after the match.