On the courts, the Trojans had the heart.
It was that heart that propelled the No. 8 men’s tennis team (25-5) on its run through nationals to its 17th team title.
Was it impossible? No. Improbable? Perhaps. In order to reach the championship round in College Station, Texas, the Trojans had to defeat No. 9 Stanford, No. 1 Virginia and No. 12 Texas. Then there were the No. 3 Buckeyes (36-2) who boasted five ranked singles players, three of whom were in the top 25. The Buckeyes had the advantage in the rankings on four of six courts.
The Trojans, however, believed — after stunning undefeated Virginia in the quarterfinals — that anything was possible.
“After we beat Virginia it was obvious that we could win,” sophomore Jaak Põldma said.
It started in doubles.
From the start, No. 4 junior Robert Farah and freshman Steve Johnson took control on court one. It wasn’t long before they served up a commanding 8-3 victory to Matt Allare and Justin Kronauge.
One court over, Ohio State answered back and defeated No. 59 senior Abdullah Magdas and freshman Daniel Nguyen 8-4.
With the score tied, it was up to number three doubles to determine which team would take the doubles point.
To start, the Buckeyes took a 2-0 lead, catching a break in the first game. Freshman Matt Kecki and Põldma, however, rallied to take a 6-4 lead. The Buckeyes came back to tie it at 6-6 and again at 7-7. The Trojans captured the next game to lead 8-7 and with the advantage in the final game, Põldma hit a winner to put away the match.
“Kecki played really well and we worked our way back into the match,” said Põldma of the initial deficit.
“After we won doubles I told Robert, ‘we are winning this,’” Magdas added.
Come time for singles, the Trojans capitalized on their advantage, winning three first sets. No. 106 Magdas was the first to take care of business when he defeated No. 113 Allare in straight sets 6-2, 6-3.
“I didn’t pay much attention to his injury,” said Magdas of Allare, who had rolled his ankle the day prior. “I know he’s a good player, and it was dangerous because he is very competitive and got in my face every time he got the point.”
On court six, Nguyen made things look easy as he handily defeated Chase Buchanan 6-0, 6-3 to put the Trojans ahead 3-0.
“I’ve played this guy [Buchanan] in juniors and he was a really good player who was supposed to go pro and I thought it would be closer,” said Nguyen.
The Trojans only needed one more point to close out the Buckeyes.
“Magdas and Nguyen won their matches and as soon as they won, I thought: ‘This is happening, this is our day and I’m going to have to raise the level and start playing way tougher.’ And that’s what I did,” Farah said.
On court one, No. 8 Farah had lost his first set 5-7, but came back to win the second set 6-1. No. 53 Johnson took the first set from No. 9 Moneke in a tiebreaker and led in the second. On courts three and five, No. 81 Põldma and Kecki were fighting to stay alive.
Ohio State got a point when No. 25 Kronauge defeated Põldma 7-6 (1), 6-4 despite several comeback efforts from the Trojan sophomore. At that moment the Buckeyes gathered some momentum and began to take control.
“They are a singles team,” Magdas said. “Their one, two and three [singles] is as good as it gets and when the guy won at three I knew anything could happen.”
On court two, Steven Moneke came back in the second set to win four straight and defeat Johnson 6-4, sending them into a third set where the players were trading games. On court five, Kecki saw No. 74 Balazs Novak come roaring back to take the set 7-5. They were 3-3 in the second. Farah was in a situation similar to Johnson, trading games in the third.
Farah was the first of the Trojans with an opportunity to clinch. He went up 5-3, but Bryan Koniecko won the next game to stay alive 5-4. At 5-4, Farah took control of his serve and Koniecko struggled to return the ball. Farah led 40-15 when he aced Koniecko to secure the national championship.
“I just threw my racket up in the air, laid on the ground and closed my eyes,” Farah said. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
It was a long road to the title indeed. On several occasions the crowd and statistics were not in their favor, but the Trojans fought on regardless.
“We had the crowd against us every single match,” Kecki said. “You just have to get used to it.”
Kecki received All-Tournament doubles honors at the three position along with partner Põldma.
“That was definitely a highlight,” Põldma said.
Nguyen received All-Tournament singles honors at the number six position.
Farah received All-Tournament honors at number one singles and number one doubles with partner Johnson. He was also the tournament MVP.
“It might be the best feeling ever,” Farah said of the victory.
Prior to the season, Kecki and Johnson wrote in their player biographies that their dream was to win an NCAA championship. On Tuesday, they saw that dream become a reality.