“A little bit, for sure.”
McCormick and the Bulldogs ultimately prevailed in dramatic fashion, the sort of theater that has often defined the rivalry across all sports. McCormick served out for the match and won 7-5, 7-5. After losing the doubles point to fall behind 0-1, the Yellow Jackets won the first three singles matches to go up 3-1 and need just one more match to go their way. Georgia rallied by winning the final three, the last from McCormick.
“We took it to ’em in three of the matches in singles, and they didn’t fold,” Tech coach Kenny Thorne said.
On paper, the Bulldogs were clear favorites. Besides the Bulldogs’ No. 9 national ranking, coach Manny Diaz rolled out three players ranked in the top 25 for singles – Hamish Stewart (19th), Trent Bryde (23rd) and Philip Henning (25th) – and two more in the top 104 .
Tech had one player in the top 125, Andres Martin at No. 12. The Jackets were 3-3, dropping their most recent three, all to top-25 teams. Diaz was braced for a stern test.
“He gets the most out of his teams every year, and we can expect a great battle,” Diaz said of Thorne, his Tech counterpart. “It doesn’t matter what the rankings are, who’s favored and who’s supposed to win. You better bring it because it goes out the window when we play each other.”
To attempt to inspire his team to match Tech’s fight, Diaz read a message from a Bulldogs tennis legend Saturday night. Diaz is on a group text with about 75 former letter winners, including greats John Isner and Mikael Pernfors. Another is Norman Holmes, an NCAA doubles champion for the Bulldogs in 1969 and one of the team’s first two All-Americans.
In the note, Holmes “talked about how when he got to Georgia, Georgia Tech was on top of the world,” Diaz said. “They were top five in the nation, and they had the tradition and they had the facilities, and Georgia was regarded as a little hick town university kind of thing.”
Things have changed. UGA has made every NCAA Tournament since 1984 and won the title six times, four with Diaz. Thorne, now in his 24th year at Tech, has built a formidable team, one that has made 13 NCAA trips, but has largely come up short against its rival from Athens. Diaz is now 34-1 against Tech, with a Thorne-led team recording the one win in 2011.
Regardless, the Jackets have often managed to push the Bulldogs. Besides 2011, perhaps never more so than Sunday. Players on both sides were primed. Martin is from Flowery Branch but did not experience the rivalry much growing up. He has caught on.
“Georgia does a good job of bringing as many fans as they can to our place,” he said. “We can definitely feel that. Some of the (Georgia fans) give you a little dirty look in the stands, but you’ve got to embrace it. You’ve got to love it.”
Martin defeated Henning at first singles 7-5, 6-1 that gave Tech a 2-1 lead after Keshav Chopra upset Bryde at third singles 6-3, 6-2 for Tech’s first point after losing the doubles point to Georgia. The next point came from Brandon McKinney at sixth singles, 6-4, 6-1 over Miguel Perez Pena.
Now Tech was one match away from a monumental upset. At fifth singles, Georgia’s Blake Croyder was well aware.
“I’m one of the guys who looks at all the scores on all the different courts, so I’m always keeping up,” Croyder said. “I knew we were down, but I just knew that I had to try and get off as fast as I could, try and give us a little more momentum.”
The Tech-Georgia rivalry is not new for Croyder, from Marietta. He had actually served as a ball boy at a Tech-Georgia match at Tech in 2011. It was Diaz’s lone loss to the Jackets.
“Seeing how much it meant to (Tech) just really made it eye-opening on how cool college tennis really is,” he said.
Croyder won his match 6-4, 6-1 over Pablo Schelcher to cut the deficit to 3-2. At No. 2 singles, Stewart won next, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 over Marcus McDaniel to tie the match at 3 and leave it up to McCormick and Dong. A sophomore from Australia, Dong dropped the first set 7-5 and was down 3-1 in the second before rallying. He was down 5-4 with McCormick serving for the match but managed to break to get to 5-5 before McCormick broke back and then won the match on his serve.
“Chen never went away,” Thorne said. “That’s a good credit to the character of the team, and that’s very important for us moving forward.”
McCormick was in the position of trying to uphold decades of UGA dominance. He had been in a similar position before. At Notre Dame, he was in the last match in a matchup with rival Indiana before falling in three sets. Plus, he was there when Diaz told the team about the rivalry’s history.
“I knew how much was riding on it, and I certainly didn’t want to be the guy to screw that up for UGA,” he said.