It's taken a decade, but the Vanderbilt men's tennis team has finally made its way back to the NCAA Sweet 16.
The 16-ranked Commodores (18-10) started strong, had a lull in the middle, then finished with a flurry in the form of Rhys Johnson's straight-set win at No. 6 singles, which clinched 4-1 victory over Illinois on Saturday at the Commodore courts. The match lasted two hours, 43 minutes.
Next for Vanderbilt is No. 1-ranked UCLA (26-1) on Thursday at Urbana, Ill.
In 2003, led by Bobby Reynolds, Vanderbilt got all the way to the national finals before it lost, to Illinois 4-3 coincidentally. On Saturday, the Commodores used the Illini as a springboard to reach their long-awaited destination.
Vanderbilt set the tone in doubles with victories at No. 1 (Gonzales Austin and Ryan Lipman) and No. 3 (Suresh Eswaran and Jeff Offerdahl) that secured the first point. Eswaran ensured the 1-0 lead when his ace on match point sealed an 8-6 win.
"In my eight years at Vanderbilt, I really believe that was the best doubles point one of my teams has ever played,'' coach Ian Duvenhage said. "All three teams were at the top of their game.
"I loved the focus of our team. They took the momentum of the doubles point right into singles. We started strong, then Illinois took the momentum back. Then we got the win by Johnson at No. 6. This was especially impressive in view of the fact Illinois had the extra motivation of playing [in the final 16] on their home courts instead of sitting in the stands watching.”
Austin, a sophomore whose point clinched Friday’s victory over East Tennessee State, scored the Commodores’ second point with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Tim Kopinski at No. 2 singles.
"Coach [Duvenhage] says after the doubles point, someone needs to step up and win the singles match,'' Austin said. "There's a big difference between being up 2-0 and tied 1-1, and I'm glad I was the one to step up.''
Lipman and Johnson followed with straight-set wins to finish the Illini, who ended 17-11.
"I am really looking forward to the UCLA match, it's a great chance for us. Ten years was long enough for us not to reach the Final 16,'' Austin said.
Austin, who is ranked No. 46, and No. 10 ranked Lipman will also compete in the NCAA singles championships in Urbana, following the team matches.
• The Vanderbilt women’s season ended with a 4-2 loss to host Clemson in the NCAA regional at Clemson, S.C. Vanderbilt (16-12) won the doubles point, then sophomore Marie Casares won at No. 4 singles for a 2-0 lead before Clemson won the final four points.