Tennessee’s men’s are going to Urbana, Ill., for the main draw of the NCAA tennis tournament.
They will have gotten there the hard way, via a 4-3 win over stubborn Clemson on Saturday.
The marathon that began at Barksdale Stadium and ended more than five hours later in the Goodfriend Center underscored the fact that rankings mean nothing in the postseason.
Coach Sam Winterbotham after Tennessee's dramatic 4-3 win over Clemson in NCAA tennis.
After the nation’s No.-1 ranked doubles team, Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese, was beaten, awarding the doubles point to No. 23 Clemson, the road to Urbana turned uphill.
It took a tenacious effort in singles, culminated by Brandon Fickey’s clinching 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-4 victory at No. 3 singles.
“I think that was probably the best college tennis match I’ve been a part of in a long time,” Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. “Clemson fought their hearts out. They’ve got to be so proud of each other.
“It was literally one point here, one point there separating the match. Incredible, incredible effort.”
The No. 6 Vols (25-8) play in the Round of 16 on Thursday against a familiar foe. No. 10 Mississippi State beat Harvard 4-1 Saturday to earn a rematch with UT.
The Vols won in Starkville 4-2 on March 8.
But after Clemson (19-8) snatched the doubles point Saturday, no one was scoreboard watching to see how Mississippi State was faring.
Clemson won at No. 2 doubles, Tennessee (John Collins and Ed Jones) at No. 3. Nice to have the nation’s top-ranked tandem to decide the point.
But Libietis and Reese lost 9-8 in a tiebreaker (7-3) to Clemson’s 11th-ranked brothers Maden, Yannick and Dominique, of Stuttgart, Germany.
Winning doubles is crucial. Prior to Saturday, the Vols were 22-2 this year when they won the point, but 1-6 when they didn’t.
So during the break before commencing singles down 1-0, the locker room must have seemed, what, somber?
“It was all positive in the locker room,’’ Fickey said.
The Vols chose to focus not on the six times they lost, but rather the one they won.
That was against Texas A&M on Feb. 17 in the National Indoor Team Championships in Seattle.
“We’re one and six,’’ said Fickey, “so we just brought back the memory of when we did beat Texas (A&M) in Seattle.
“We said if we could do it then, we can do it now. There’s nothing that can stop us.’’
Saturday, there wasn’t.
“I absolutely believe,’’ Winterbotham said, “that we’ve got six singles (potential points) out there.
“But the doubles point definitely helps.’’
Clemson went up 2-0, but then Collins won for UT at No. 5 and Hunter Reese tied it 2-2 by winning at No. 2.
In the space of a few minutes, top-ranked Libietis fought off Yannick Maden on court 1 and Jones lost at 6 in three sets.
Score 3-3. Every eye in the building turned to Fickey, on court 3, who was just starting his third set against Gerardo Meza.
The sophomore prevailed with a 6-4 victory to keep UT’s season alive.
Said Winterbotham, “We talk about being ‘Tennessee tough,’ and I think we’ve got a guy over there in Brandon Fickey who epitomizes that — Tennessee tough.”