More May Madness: Texas men’s tennis wins 4-3 again, advances to Final Four

More+May+Madness%3A+Texas+men%E2%80%99s+tennis+wins+4-3+again%2C+advances+to+Final+Four

Ross Fisher

Back in February at the ITA Indoor Championship, Cleeve Harper clinched Texas’s win over then-ranked No. 1 USC. But on Thursday, with his third set tied at 5-5 and a trip to the Final Four on the line, the pressure he faced turned up several notches.

With the weight of the Longhorns’ season on his racket, the sophomore landed incredulous lob after incredulous lob to break USC junior Bradley Frye’s serve. At the match point, up 6-5, Harper rocketed his first serve past Frye and incited another Longhorn mob before he knew it. A mob just like the one Harper started in February, and just like the ones that followed Texas’ eight other 4-3 clinches this season.

Thanks to Harper’s win on court 4, No. 4 Texas knocked off No. 12 USC, 4-3, in the NCAA Championship Elite 8 at the USTA Campus in Orlando, Florida. The win punches the Longhorns’ ticket to the Final Four, where they will face either No. 1 Florida or No. 8 Texas A&M.

After the match, Texas head coach Bruce Berque said Harper’s improvement in his time at Texas has been, “One of the most amazing things,” he’s seen in his coaching career. The biggest factor in Harper’s improvement, Berque believes, is his competitive mindset and focused approach to matches.

“He has evolved as a competitor,” Berque said. “I think the experience for him, redshirting during our championship run, seeing the kind of emotion and court presence it takes to be successful at this level, in my mind it was a really big benefit for him.”

Not only did Harper’s resiliency help him fend off so many of Frye’s almost winners, but he was able to keep himself in points by landing several lobs at a high level of difficulty. Harper said training in Austin helped him use the wind to master that skill, which allows him to swing the momentum in his favor during intense points.

“Those points are just scrappy ones, I’m just trying to do whatever I can to stay in the point,” Harper said. “I feel (the wind) is an advantage for us, because we’re in Austin and it’s so windy every practice, we’ve gotten used to it. I definitely played as if it was an advantage for me.”

Last time the two programs faced each other, USC seniors Daniel Cukierman and Riley Smith clinched the doubles point with a tiebreak win at No. 1 against Texas sophomores Eliot Spizzirri and Siem Woldeab. On Thursday, it was Spizzirri and Woldeab who won the doubles point for Texas in a tiebreak at No. 1.

With the crucial doubles point already set in stone, a straight set victory for freshman Micah Braswell at No. 2 singles doubled the Texas advantage.

USC junior Jake Sands got a point back for the Trojans, beating sophomore Evin McDonald at No. 6. Then, No. 49-ranked Cukierman defeated No. 23-ranked Spizzirri on court 1, to even the score at 2-2.

The match continued to be back and forth, with Texas junior Chih Chi Huang restoring the Longhorn lead, winning at No. 5. However, Texas was pegged back once more as No. 75 Woldeab fell to USC sophomore Stefan Dostanic on court 3.

Woldeab’s loss set up Harper’s clinching scenario. The Candian’s win improved Texas’s record in 4-3 matches to 10-1 on the season.

Harper acknowledged the challenge of being in those tight situations, but said he enjoyed finding a way to win for his teammates.

“You don’t always want to be the last one out there. It’s a little nerve-racking and it’s not easy,” Harper said. “But it’s a lot of fun when you’re in the moment, and I just want to do whatever I can to help my team get a point on the board.”