Manuel Diaz kept faith in his team.
Even after the Georgia men's tennis team dropped five matches in a row during the indoor season, Diaz believed his program would eventually turn its fortune around. One of those early-season losses just so happened to be against USC, the program the Bulldogs would face Thursday in the round of 16 at the NCAA Championships.
Diaz knew the Bulldogs weren't ready for the big stage in February. Three months later, a young Georgia team is beginning to peak. Diaz, perhaps, is beginning to see his vision take shape.
In its second meeting against USC, seeded fourth, No. 13 seed Georgia picked up a grueling 4-3 victory in a match that lasted three hours, 17 minutes. Those early season losses, including the drubbing sweep it took from the Trojans in February, prepared Georgia for Thursday's moment.
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"Every bump that we took, I felt like we learned a lot from it," Diaz said. "I tried to make each one of those losses a learning opportunity. I was never discouraged with our effort. I knew we weren’t ready to accomplish things then but I knew our guys were ready once we got outside.”
Georgia (21-7) trailed 3-2 around the three-hour point, with USC's Riley Smith defeating Georgia's Robert Loeb 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 on Court 6. But the Bulldogs held third-set leads in the remaining two matches. It was just a matter of Georgia ensuring it could finish the Trojans (27-6) out.
Sophomore Jan Zielinski tied the match up at 3-3 with a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-3 win over Jack Jaede. Only a few seconds later, junior Wayne Montgomery clinched the dual match on Court 2 with a 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-2 win over USC's Nick Crystal.
Zielinski's match showcased some dramatics on Georgia's legendary Court 4 -- the hallowed spot that has previously played a major role in Georgia's championship runs. Zielinski jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the fifth set before dropping two consecutive games. Jaede broke Zielinski's serve to cut his lead to 5-3, with Zielinski admitting he was playing a bit too tight when trying to close the match out.
Zielinski responded with a few winners in the next game to break back against Jaede, evening the score for his team.
"I just kept telling myself, 'It’s fine. I still have a break, I can break him again,'" Zielinski said. "I broke him a few times before earlier in the match. I was just trying to play ball after ball, not thinking about the last game. It worked out. I played an awesome game at 5-3."
Montgomery's clinching match came after a slow start in the first set. Crystal jumped out to a 5-2 lead and appeared in control early on Court 2. But Montgomery slowly rallied back. He would wind up taking five consecutive games to win that first set.
After dropping the second set in a tiebreaker, Montgomery cruised in the third set to clinch the dual match. With the win, Georgia advanced to the quarterfinals and will take on No. 5 seed UCLA, a team that also defeated Georgia early during its five-match losing streak.
"I obviously got off to a slow start," Montgomery said. "However, I still felt in control. Even if I lost the first set I knew I had a good chance at winning. I was feeling confident."
Diaz said Georgia will need to recreate the formula that secured an upset win over USC on Saturday against the Bruins.
"They’ve already whooped us this year," Diaz said. "We have to get our rest and try to do it again. I’m confident that our guys have learned as the season has gone along. We are maturing. I know what we’re capable of."
Georgia's win ended USC’s championship run in Athens. The last three times the NCAA Championships were hosted at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the Trojans won the title.
Sophomores Emil Reinberg and Walker Duncan picked up the other two points in Georgia's win. Reinberg defeated Logan Smith 6-2, 7-5 on Court 3 and Duncan defeated Thibault Forget 6-4, 6-1 on Court 5. USC's Brandon Holt defeated Nathan Ponwith 6-4, 6-4 on Court 1.
The Bulldogs were able to claim the victory after dropping the doubles point. The deciding doubles match came down between Georgia’s top-ranked tandem in Zielinski and Loeb and USC's No. 14 duo Smith and Holt. Each side held serve with the Trojans taking a 6-5 lead.
USC then led 40-15 in that 12th game, with the Bulldogs taking the next two points. Zielinski then smoked a serve to draw even at 40-40.
Facing no advantage in college tennis, Zielinski and Loeb elected to serve toward Smith for the next point. Zielinski’s serve helped Georgia control the point and ultimately take the game.
But in the deciding tiebreak, USC proved too much and took the set 7-6 (1). It earned the Trojans the doubles point and an early 1-0 lead.
Georgia’s No. 3 doubles team of Montgomery and Duncan broke USC in the last game for a 6-4 win over Jaede and Rob Bellamy. But the Trojans answered soon after with a 6-3 win from Crystal and Laurens Verboven over Reinberg and Ponwith.
While USC was considered one of the favorites to win the NCAA Championships, Montgomery said he felt confident about his team's chances entering the match.
"I honestly had no doubt," Montgomery said. "I thought about it last night, been focusing on USC. We know what they’re capable of. They’ve won a lot of NCAA titles before, have a great team, great coaches. We had the matchups we wanted. We knew we were capable of beating them. It was a matter of going out and executing the plan."
Diaz felt it would be a tough match. Any nerves he had entering the day about it, however, weren't present throughout his demeanor.
But Diaz, like he has for 35 years as Georgia's head coach, wanted to keep his players upbeat. That confidence, at this stage of the season, has certainly rubbed off.
"Ranking wise, we knew we were the underdogs but I believe we’re capable of beating anybody in the tournament," Diaz said.