By Ashley Marshall
Auburn University claimed its first Tennis On Campus National Championship in school history on Saturday evening with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over hometown favorites the University of North Carolina.
Auburn trailed throughout the final, at one point by as many as eight games, before forcing first a one-game overtime and then a super tiebreak in securing a 23-22 victory.
The Tigers' first lead came more than three hours and 251 points into what was eventually a 256-point battle, with the match score tied at 22-22. Auburn pulled ahead to a 4-3 lead in the first-to-seven super tiebreak, and, five points later, the Tigers were storming the court to embrace teammates Mitchell Vegas and Ashley Kitchen, who had wrapped up a remarkable victory.
"Just one last set, that was all I was thinking," said Vegas, who played 14 sets over three days. "[There are] so many emotions. I love to fight, that's what I do with everything. I kept fighting. I've had a match come down to one point before ... but nothing like this, with all these people watching. This was everything. The whole season was on those two points."
Added Kitchen: "I was nervous, but I was just focusing each point and at the end it was just pure joy," Kitchen said. "I love this team, they're like family. It was amazing to accomplish this with them."
The win was the capstone of a stunning season for Auburn, which also defeated UNC in the USTA Southern section national championship and then went a perfect 7-0 at the Cary Tennis Park in Cary, N.C., this week.
Auburn defeated the University of Illinois, North Dakota State University and the University of California - Davis to win its pool and guarantee a place in the gold bracket. The Tigers then defeated Dartmouth University in the round of 16, two-time defending champions the University of California - Berkeley in the quarterfinals and Cornell University in the semis en route to the final.
"This was absolutely the most exciting and dynamic final we’ve ever had in the history of Tennis On Campus,” USTA Tennis on Campus National Director Glenn Arrington said. “Two equal competitors, great spirit, good sportsmanship, good fan base, it was an exciting final. Tennis On Campus is a family of kids that enjoy this sport tremendously and are having a good time."
Despite the loss, afterward UNC captain Roxanne Henshall remarked on how amazing the National Championship had been for her squad.
"If any three days could match my whole college career, it would be these,” she said. “Nationals is always fun, no matter how you perform, no matter what team you bring. Nationals is one of the best tournaments of the year and three days is not enough. Every single player on this team has a heart of gold and I couldn’t be more proud to play with them.
"What a match. Emotions were high and adrenaline was running through every single nerve. That’s the most you can ask for in tennis. That’s playing at the highest level we can. You win as a team as you lose as a team.”
Henshall and her partner, Sarah French, gave the Tar Heels the best possible start to Saturday night’s finale, posting a 6-0 set victory over Alexandria Hall and Hannah Shoener.The effort from Auburn's duo, however, did not go unnoticed. The Alabama club tennis team seated two rows behind the Tigers' bench with “War Eagle” written on their chests in blue and orange letters in support of their peers, started a “Let's go Auburn” chant. And when the second match started, it was Hall and Shoener leading the cheers from the sidelines, pompoms in hand.
Buoyed by the enthusiasm, Auburn got back into the final behind a strong performance from senior Ashley Kitchen. UNC's Xander Lee started the better of the two players, but once Kitchen shook off the early nerves, it was predominantly one-way traffic as Kitchen dropped just five points in reeling off six consecutive games.
The turning point came at 15-15 with Lee serving, down 2-3. An extended rally drew both players around the court, but Kitchen was the aggressor and her perseverance paid off in the form of a clean inside-out winner off the forehand wing. Two points later, an angled winner secured a key break and solidified the change in momentum, trimming UNC’s lead to 8-6.
Down but not out heading into the men's doubles, the Tigers forced their way back into the match. The teams split the first six games before Auburn finally seized momentum, breaking in the seventh game and consolidating the break to move ahead 5-3 en route to a 6-4 win that leveled the overall match score at 12-12.
The next match up was the men’s singles, pitting Vegas against Carolina’s Connor Cook. The UNC standout raced out to a 4-1 lead before Vegas worked his way back into the match, using a clean forehand winner down the line at 0-15 to help get one of the breaks back. That point energized Vegas, got the Tigers on their feet and gave Auburn's fans a renewed sense of self-belief. But Cook's nerve never faltered and he broke for a third time to seal the set win, 6-3, and establish an 18-15 advantage.
As close as the match had been entering the mixed doubles, it was only a precursor for things to come. The mixed doubles would go back and forth, with Auburn’s team of Kitchen and Vegas working to chip away at UNC’s three-game advantage against UNC's duo of Phil Mayer and Henshall. The teams exchanged holds and breaks, with Auburn seizing a slight edge to go ahead 5-3 and cut UNC's overall match lead to 21-20.
With the tournament title on the line, Mayer and Henshall would preserve their team’s lead by winning the next game, but Kitchen and Vegas would take the mixed, 6-4, making it 22-21 in favor of the Tar Heels. Under World TeamTennis rules, if a team wins the mixed doubles match but is still trailing on the overall score, it can keep playing until it lose one game. Fitting for the occasion, Auburn who won that one overtime game, punctured by three extended cross-court rallies between Vegas and Henshall.
With the score now tied at 22-22, the final then entered a super tiebreak, with the first to seven points being declared the winner. UNC won the toss and chose to serve, and the teams split the first 10 points, with Auburn earning its first overall lead in the entire match at 4-3. UNC tied once more at 5-5, but Auburn wrapped up the championship by claiming the next two points to win, 23-22.
Championship Match: Auburn University 23, North Carolina University 22