Editor's Note: UCLA and Virginia have reached the semifinals of this year's NCAA Men's National Championship, and are each a win away from a rematch of last year's memorable final. That match, and the call that changed a champion, are described in intimate detail below.
On Court 3 at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex on the University of Illinois campus, the NCAA Men’s National Championship came down to one match.
Two exhausted young men, one a junior from Le Haillan, France and the other a sophomore from Annandale, Virginia, were trying, desperately, to claim a title for their respective schools. Facing intense pressure from their teammates and coaches, from fans and alumni, and from the burdens of history, the two players battled just to hold on, struggling just to get first serves in the box and forehands over the net.
As the final set wore on, tactics and shot-making took a backseat to survival. There was a palpable feeling of desperation on the court. Bombarded by screaming fans, swirling winds, and tightening muscles, the action on Court 3 began to feel less like tennis and more like bloodsport.
The final score on Court 3 would read 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, giving Virginia the National Championship, 4-3.
But what happened at the end of the final set was so unusual, so emotional, so bewildering, that it will be remembered for years to come, perhaps as much as the pivotal victory itself.
Setting the Stage
Over the course of ten days, a field of 64 teams was narrowed down to four. In the semifinals, top-seeded UCLA edged Ohio State, 4-3, and second-seeded Virginia beat Georgia 4-1. The results weren’t unexpected, and they teed up the final that most had been hoping for: A battle between the top two teams in the country.
Billy Martin (Head Coach, UCLA): The finals of an NCAA Championship has a special feeling. Tension. Nervousness. Anxiety.
Colette Lewis (Journalist and founder of ZooTennis.com; has covered college tennis since 2000): There have been many 4-3 national final matches, so I was expecting a close match, but with sports you’re never quite sure.
Brian Boland (Head Coach, University of Virginia): The team felt like we were playing our best tennis of the year. Being around the guys in the locker room that day, I certainly did feel an extra step of confidence or swagger.
Martin: Each one feels a little different. You have a different group of guys every time, so you just don’t know, in that big a forum, in that big a moment, how they’re going to handle the pressure.
Adrien Puget (No. 3 Singles Player, UCLA): We hadn’t played Virginia during the season, so we didn’t know what to expect from them. We didn’t know how they would play or how they would react under pressure, stuff like that.
Boland: We have a very detailed routine that we go through during the week. We walked together to breakfast as a team, which we did every morning. We have some superstitious guys on our team, so whatever that restaurant is, if it works the first day, then, oh boy, we’re there the rest of the way.
Mitchell Frank (No. 3 Singles Player, University of Virginia): I remember that morning I had a weird feeling that the match was going to come down to me. I was playing out scenarios in my head, seeing myself as last guy on the court, battling for my team, trying to come though.
Martin: Our team was pumped up. As you win matches, from the round of sixteen to the quarters, its building up. There’s a real excitement. You can see the intensity. You kind of wish you could bottle it from a coaching standpoint, and have them working that hard the entire year.
Lewis: I think the interesting story behind this one was just the history of Virginia being unable to get over that hump. Having lost 4-3 and 4-2 the previous two years, both to USC. And they’d had great, great teams in the past, and were heavy favorites in many of the years they reached the final four.
Boland: We had a bus that took us each day to the site, so we spent a lot of time kind of talking as a team. That was my time to address anything I wanted to discuss with the team, and I certainly did the morning of the final.
Frank: Usually our team is very talkative and loose, but that morning, everyone was quiet. We knew there was business to take care of. We’d been here so many times but hadn’t gotten it done. It wasn’t something we really ever discussed, but it was in our heads.
Boland: One of my biggest jobs last year was taking the pressure off. These kids were feeling the weight of our history. And whether I believed that or not, it was true. There were moments where I would try and convince myself that it didn’t play a role, but we knew it was an issue. We’d been so close so many times and there’d been so much talk about it.
Lewis: There was getting to be the sense that Virginia was going to be a perennial bridesmaid and that something was going to happen this year that would keep them from winning yet again.
Boland: Reaching six final-fours and two finals. Losing the last match on in 2011, being way up in No. 6 singles and serving for it at No. 5, either which would have won it all for us in 2012. I think the team itself felt a certain amount of pressure to bring home a national championship to Charlottesville.
Puget: Our team tried to approach the match with exactly the same routine we had for the whole tournament. We were well-prepared, I think.
Boland: I also didn’t want it to be about me. I started this program 13 years ago, and we’d had some tough losses, but I told them today was about them. These kids only get four shots at it.
Puget: Coach said a few words before in the locker room. Trying to take the pressure off. To remember that it’s just a tennis match and to have fun. To just play our game and enjoy it while we’re out there.
Martin: I was anxious to see how the guys would perform under that kind of pressure, with everything on the line, trying to achieve the ultimate goal.
Boland: No one could have predicted it would come down the way it did. This time it fell our way.
Frank: I just remember having that vision of the match coming down to me.
The NCAA tournament can often be exciting, rowdy, and totally unpredictable. For the first time, it was held in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, on the campus of the University of Illinois.
Martin: We didn’t know what to expect, quite honestly, being the first year ever at Illinois. Weather, courts. Georgia, Stanford, we all know what to expect. We all went into Illinois needing to start the learning curve.
Frank: There are six courts in a row, all side-by-side. And you can see all the courts from the stands.
Lewis: In college tennis, all the singles matches are going on at once, and as things progress, all the fans, players, and coaches begin to focus and surround the last court still going.
Puget: Six courts, all side-by-side, next to each other. No wind breaks. And the crowd is right there, along the one side of the courts.
Lewis: Virginia had long ago established that their fans will travel almost anywhere, anytime to watch them play. So they had a huge contingent there, even though Charlottesville is quite a ways from Urbana-Champaign. More than 90 percent of the fans there were for Virginia.
Frank: It was brutally windy the whole week. The first day we were struggling to just keep the ball in the court.
Puget: Really weird conditions. It was kind of warm and really windy. Bad wind. Had been that way for the whole week.
Martin: The day we played Ohio State, the wind was ridiculous. But playing outdoors more, close to the ocean, we’re used to having a little bit of wind. I think it really helped us against Ohio State. They seemed a lot more flustered by the wind then we were that day.
Lewis: The weather was really strange, going from hot to cold, then back again. No rain during the team tournament, but there was a lot of wind. Conditions were not ideal, but I wouldn’t say that it affected the match that much.
Boland: I told the team, let’s only worry about what we can actually control.
Martin: That’s why it helps to have the older players who’ve been through that. The more experience you’ve had in that forum, playing in the later rounds, the more it helps.
Frank: It wasn’t a cross-wind really. One side, the wind was at your back, the other it was heavily in your face.
Martin: The day of the finals, as bad as it was, that might have been one of the better days.
The Matches Begin
Virginia won the doubles point, then all six singles matches began. The third singles, Puget against Frank, looked to be anything but a classic. Puget took the first set 6-0.
Martin: Sometimes you look at the line-up and there are matches you feel you have a really good shot at, others that maybe you don’t feel so good about. And there are one or two where you think, it’s going to all come down to them. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been wrong.
Lewis: It was almost impossible to foresee which of the six was going to become the deciding match. There are just so many things going on at once that can change the result.
Martin: Before they walked out there, I reminded the guys that it’s still just a tennis match, still the same court, don’t make it more than it is. Do the obvious, but do it well. Keep your mind focused. With the TV and the size of the crowd, with all that’s riding on the match, it’s easy to let your mind wander.
Frank: I was playing pretty decent. The first couple rounds of the tournament I wasn’t able to complete a match. It’s one thing to be in a position to win, it’s another to actually finish a match. That brings its own confidence. I definitely didn’t have the number of completed matches I would have wanted, but in the semis I had a good win.
Boland: Mitchell was playing OK. He’s a counter-puncher, makes a lot of balls, and his points are longer than most players. He was playing fairly well. The thing about Mitchell is that regardless of how he’s hitting the ball, he’s always competing, always fighting.
Martin: Adrien had been playing well. Won some matches, lost some, played good doubles. He was playing solid, which he usually does.
Frank: I’d seen him play in juniors, had an idea about him, but I’d never actually played him. I knew he was an all-around player, could beat their 2 or 1 player on any given day. Coaches had given me the details on his game, which side was stronger, where he liked to go.
Puget: Some of the guys had played Frank in the juniors. The coaches also knew him, what he liked and didn’t like. But it’s different to watch a guy play and actually play him.
Boland: Both of them have no trouble playing 50-ball rallies, let me tell you.
Martin: I thought Puget could keep it close, but with Mitchell I knew that would be a tough one.
Puget: I played the right tactics in the first set. I was making good shots at the right time. Against someone like him, you just have to wait for the right ball.
Frank: He was playing some great tennis. We had some long games, the second game, when he broke me, was like a 20-minute game. I was struggling a little bit but Adrien was playing great.
Boland: That was one of the longest 6-0 sets I’ve ever seen. Even the last game, when the set was gone, was incredibly long.
Puget: In the first set, I was grinding with him really well, and my serve was working, so I didn’t have any breakpoints.
Lewis: Even though he lost the first set 6-0, knowing Mitchell, it was well within the realm of possibility that he would come back and make that a three-set match. I’ve seen him enough both in juniors and two years in college to know that the match wasn’t over by any stretch.
Boland: On the changeover, after the first set, I said to him, “So are you ready to start the match?” And he smiled and said, “Exactly right coach, I’m ready now.” I don’t think there was any panic.
Down the Stretch They Come
Virginia proceeded to win first and fifth singles, while UCLA won the second and fourth. A short time later, sixth singles also went to the Bruins, bringing the overall team score to 3-3. Frank versus Puget became the last match on.
Boland: You could see their match begin to turn. Mitchell started to hit the ball more, get his hands through his shots more, his depth got better. Puget was suddenly dealing with a bigger ball and a more aggressive player.
Frank: I started playing better and Adrien cooled off a little bit. The thing about winning a set 6-0 is that when the other guy finally does win a game or two, he starts to feel some momentum.
Puget: In the second set, my serve started not working anymore. I gave him like two breaks. So this was a big shift in the match, but I was still feeling confident going into the third set, even though I just lost the second.
Frank: I’ve lost a lot of first sets bad, then made some good comebacks in my career, so there was no hitting the panic button.
Martin: For the most part, until they were the last match on, I wasn’t too involved with the match. Was just monitoring it from afar.
Puget: There’s a big scoreboard, so we can all check the scores on the other courts, so I knew what was going on. We were down 3-2, but six singles was looking good.
Frank: I think it was about 3-all in the third when we became the last match on. At that point, I realized it was on me.
Puget: Around 3-2 in the third set, we were the last match on. I was happy that number six pulled it out. We had a chance. I wasn’t nervous being the last match on. I felt like I was playing well and had some good tactics in the third, better than the second.
Martin: Both those matches—six and three—were the only ones that went three sets.
Boland: Mitchell’s a great competitor. And if the match was tied 3-3, I don’t think there’s anyone else on the team I’d rather have out there.
Frank: Our fans were pretty loud. It was pretty intense. A lot of cheering from both sides. Made it fun. Everyone started to realize that it was coming down to my match. Everyone started to flock over.
Lewis: Once they both realized it was going to come down to them, you could just see the nerves.
Puget: People gathered around. You could definitely feel it. There’s more intensity around the court.
Lewis: I don’t think either one of them played great in the third set, but that’s not what it’s about. You just want to win the match. It was really back and forth. You never had any real sense that anyone was in control or seizing the moment. Until, finally, Puget got that break to serve for the match.
Boland: At 4-3 in the third set, Mitchell got broke. He hit an easy forehand into the net to go down 5-3. That’s when you really felt the momentum and the air knocked out of Virginia. People were in this “Oh not again” mode. There was an eerie, surreal feel to it. We had thousands of fans there. And I really felt they got the wind knocked out of them.
Lewis: Then all of a sudden, something really, really strange and unusual happened.
Puget served for the National Championship at 5-3, earning his one and only match point at 40-30.
Frank: I was against the wind. I wanted to make him play, so I chipped a forehand return, just trying to make it. Almost floated wide. He hit the backhand approach down the line, I hit a forehand pass that floated in the wind. It kind of hung in the air, and he had to close in a lot tighter than he probably expected. He couldn’t really angle it off.
Puget: I served a pretty good serve down the T. He returned a shank return to my backhand. I came in down the line, he hit a passing shot down the same line.
Martin: I suggested to serve and volley, but Adrien hit a pretty good serve and stayed back. He got a short ball, came in, then hit the volley. I was a nervous wreck just watching.
Puget: I was serving with the wind. I remember Billy telling me something but I’m not sure what it was. I was zoning, just trying to focus on getting in a good serve.
Boland: It was a high volley, and he was moving in so fast that his momentum carried him right into the net. And the ref was on it and called it right away.
Lewis: I didn’t see him touch the net. I was watching the ball, and looking towards where it was going to land. I had no idea what had actually happened.
Frank: In the process he touched the net, but I didn’t hear it. I chased down the shot and tried to throw up a lob, and right when I hit it I felt like it was going out.
Martin: I was watching the ball, because as fast as Mitchell is, you knew he was going to get it. He hit a lob, and we all followed it, and the ball missed by about six inches.
Frank: I thought it was over. I’d lost the match. Then, all of a sudden, I see the ref yelling something and pointing. Pointing at Puget’s foot. And the ref basically said that his foot touched the net.
Lewis: There are people cheering, everybody is standing around, it was pretty much chaos. We weren’t quite sure what had happened. And they just went on to the next point.
Frank: Some of the UCLA team, they saw the lob going long and they started running on the court.
Boland: Some of their guys started running towards the court, but then immediately the umpire yelled out. I heard it right away, saw it right away. Puget looked around, but he knew it was the right call.
Puget: I wanted to make sure I hit the volley perfectly and I did a small step afterwards. I didn’t think I was that close to the net, but I barely touched the bottom of the net. With the wind, the bottom of the net was sticking out on my side.
Lewis: It wasn’t until later that they confirmed that it had been called. And everyone in the crowd was like, “Oh my gosh, did that actually happen?”
Martin: We all started to get a little excited, but I caught the umpire out of the corner of my eye, saw him motioning across the net and pointing at Adrien’s toe. I was a little bewildered, but heard him explain that Adrien’s shoe had touched the net on that volley. The head referee confirmed it.
Puget: My teammates raised their hands in the air and started screaming and a few started to rush on the court.
Lewis: They had pretty much started the celebration, and that was in the back of my mind, did they somehow interfere, was some kind of hindrance called. Because that sometimes happens—kids shout out before the point is actually over. They had all raised their arms and were getting ready to pounce on Puget.
Puget: I barely touched the net with my foot, with my sneaker. Barely.
Boland: There wasn’t much argument from the UCLA side. And Puget had no argument at all. When you look back at the tape, he clearly ran into the net.
Frank: So there it was. Deuce.
Martin: I was debating…do I run over and argue or do I try to calm Adrien down. So I went over to Adrien, because it wouldn’t do any good to rant and rave.
Boland: Coach Martin just backed right off, and it was smart on UCLA’s part, because quite frankly, they don’t want to think about it too much. They’re still in control. They’re still serving for it. They make a big deal about it and then they’re icing their server in a sense. I don’t disagree with how they handled it at all.
Frank: Puget didn’t really argue it. He just asked “What?” then went back to the baseline. So I think he knew he touched it. It was a gutsy call for the ref to make, but I think it was the right call. From the videos you can kind of see it.
Puget: It was a big surprise. Unexpected. Tough to handle. A tough situation to face.
Lewis: I have to say it was one of the best pieces of officiating I’ve ever seen. The chair umpire is watching the lines, so he has to be very focused on where the ball is landing, so to be able to see Puget touch the net, that was an incredible piece of officiating. The umpire was very much in control, very sure of what he had seen. So that was impressive.
Boland: It was an obvious call and the right call. You don’t always get the right call, but in this case we did.
Puget: His lob was out. I would have won.
Puget was still serving, with the wind, at 5-3, deuce. On paper, he was still in control of the match. In reality?
Frank: From that point, something changed. All of a sudden, it felt like we were maybe destined to win this one.
Puget: Everything went so fast. Really fast. I should have listened to the coaches and taken a little more time after that point. It was still 5-3. Deuce. I was still serving for it, with the wind at my back.
Lewis: I definitely sensed that the air had suddenly come out of his balloon. And it was unlikely that he was going to be able to recover from that. It would have been nice if he could have regained control of his game and put it behind him, but that was a lot to ask, given the circumstances.
Frank: Feeling that if I could win this deuce point, the guy might just unravel.
Martin: He was unbelievably distressed. Sometimes, you can’t help but think about the worst-case scenario…what happens if I lose this match, going from the hero to the goat? So I tried to keep him positive.
Puget: I was still serving for it, but I got confused and emotional and I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve lost match points before, but to lose a match point like that? I served the next two points, and twice I made a mistake on the second or third shot. A bad mistake. I just gave him the break.
Boland: When I really started to sense that Mitchell was going to win that match was the changeover at 4-5. I was talking to him and feeling him out and he was really confident.
Martin: Body language-wise, it wasn’t good what I was seeing after that game. As hard as he was trying, it got to Adrien. And certainly, it was a momentum builder for Mitchell.
Puget: Coach came over on the change over and tried to calm me down. He tried to support me and told me to just go get it at 5-4. He didn’t really talk to me about the point or about that game.
Boland: When he got broken, I did sense deflation. He didn’t look like the same player at 5-4. But I’m not sure that anybody would.
Frank: We’d been on the brink of losing, and he’d put himself in position but hadn’t won. And it almost felt like he had given everything he had and had come up short. Like he’d run out of bullets.
Lewis: Coach Martin handled it beautifully. He still wasn’t sure it had actually happened. The fact that the call was borne out to be correct is of some comfort to him, I’m sure.
Martin: He was still ahead 5-4, he could still break. And he actually went up 15-30 on that 5-4 game. But Frank ended up holding.
Puget: At 5-5, I started to hear that voice. That inside negative voice in my head. Which was not good. I was trying not to listen to it, but this voice was very persistent.
Frank: For sure he was shell-shocked. You could tell he was definitely not in the best frame of mind, but he kept fighting.
Puget: Suddenly, I don’t know how to play him anymore. I was using bad tactics. Rushing the net against the wind. I started panicking, and then I got broken again. Of course.
Boland: Now Mitchell’s up 6-5, about to serve for the National Championship, and on that change over, as I walked over, he put the towel over his head…and I just walked away. And I told my assistant: He’s got it. He’s going to win this match. When he put that towel over his head, that gave me a confidence that I can’t even tell you. And Mitchell came through. He closed it out.
Puget: It was brutal. My teammates were depending on me to finish it, and I was there…and somehow I didn’t do it. I blame me and only me for that loss.
Lewis: To lose a national title that way was devastating.
Frank: Afterwards, he was definitely crushed. It was tough to watch.
Lewis: Puget was sobbing on the sidelines.
Martin: Adrien was devastated and all of that, but he knew he’d given a hundred percent, his teammates knew it. There’s not a lot you can say. I’m not one to sugarcoat it, I just wanted him to know that it was an unbelievable effort.
Puget: I went on the grass all by myself, lying there, and I just couldn’t believe it. Sometimes, when you win, you can’t believe it either, but in a good way. I kept asking myself, how was this possible? It had never happened in all of college tennis. It was like a bad dream.
Final score of the 2013 NCAA Men’s National Championship: Virginia 4, UCLA 3. The two teams will play each other again on March 6 in Westwood, Calif.
Lewis: So going in, there was the sense of Virginia being the perennial bridesmaid, and that something was going to keep them from winning yet again. So the fact that it was pretty much the opposite—that they got the stroke of luck or whatever that allowed them to win the match—turned the whole narrative on its head.
Boland: The celebration was pretty intense, as you can imagine. To finally knock that door open…
Frank: A match like that prepares you for the next level of tennis. I’ve never felt more pressure in my life playing for that final point.
Boland: What Coach Martin said during the ceremony showed real class, especially after what his team had just gone though.
Martin: In my playing and coaching life, I couldn’t imagine something like that ever happening, but it did. And I guess I witnessed it to the worst degree.
Puget: It’s still like a bad dream. I had the match.
|What's next for UCLA and UVA? Colette Lewis talks college tennis in a special edition of the podcast.|
Boland: The rematch should be interesting. I’m glad we were able to work it out. It’ll be a highly contested match.
Martin: It’ll be curious next week. It’s such a different mixture of guys. So many different matchups, we have three freshmen in the lineup that didn’t experience the final. It’s a whole new scenario.
Puget: I played a little too much this summer and had a partial tear in my knee. The doctor advised me to do surgery, that it would be the best for me if I want to do pros later. It happened five months ago. I took the fall quarter off, then came back to campus in January.
Frank: They’re going to be amped up to go. Doesn’t sound like Adrien will be playing, which is too bad, but we’re preparing hard, working outdoors here to get ready.
Lewis: I’m glad Puget is back in school. You kind of worried that he wouldn’t be back in college tennis again, after that. You wouldn’t want that match to be his last.
Puget: I’m back in school. The goal is for me to play this year, definitely. Hopefully, in six to eight weeks. Hopefully, in time for the NCAA Championships.
Tom A. McFerson is a regular contributor to TENNIS.com.