KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- Playing just his second match in more than a month after a shoulder injury, sophomore Brandon Fickey was ready to win when Tennessee needed him most Saturday.
The last Vol on court for his entire final set, Fickey rallied from behind to defeat Gerardo Meza on court 3 and deliver the Vols' 4-3 victory over Clemson in the second round of the NCAA Championships at Goodfriend Tennis Center.
With the victory, the sixth-ranked Volunteers (25-8) advance to the Round of 16 at the NCAA finals site in Urbana, Ill., next Thursday where they will face SEC foe Mississippi State. No. 23 Clemson’s team season ends at 19-8.
“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 dual match was tied at 3-3 after sophomore Mikelis Libietis won on court 1 and senior Edward Jones lost on court 6 in three sets, leaving the dual match and the Vols' postseason hopes in the hands of Fickey, who was back on the courts for Tennessee for the first time since April 7.
"We talk about being ‘Tennessee tough,’ and I think we’ve got a guy over there in Brandon Fickey who epitomizes that – Tennessee tough," Winterbotham said. "It had been a month out (since he last played), his shoulder has bothered him the whole year, and he comes through when we needed it the most.”
The crowd had survived an earlier rain shower and moved indoors for most of the 6-hour marathon match. They all stayed glued in their seats for the ending, except to stand and applaud now and again for Fickey.
The Knoxville native won the first set 6-4 and lost the second in a tiebreaker as the remaining matches were finishing. After an up and down injury-filled spring season in which Fickey was as ranked as high as No. 76, the Vol sophomore was looking for his first win since Feb. 17.
Fickey’s serve was broken by Meza to begin their dramatic third set, but Fickey later equalized the match at 2-2. Later, with Meza serving down 4-5, Fickey focused in and sent the crowd into a frenzy by breaking Meza at love to complete the 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-4 victory.
“Being from Knoxville, it’s even better," Fickey said. "(Associate head coach Chris Woodruff) told me to do it for Knoxville, and that’s what I did. I did it for the team, I did it for Knoxville, I did it for Tennessee. I did it before at Wake Forest, and that’s really all I could think about out there to help me get through it, to be honest.”
Rain played a role early on in the afternoon as the weather forced play indoors early in doubles play. Once inside, Clemson took momentum and got wins at Nos. 1 and 2 doubles to take a 1-0 lead into singles action.
For UT’s No. 1 doubles tandem of Libietis and Hunter Reese – the top-ranked pairing in the country – the loss was their first of the season, as the pair entered Saturday’s action boasting an unblemished 12-0 mark.
Undeterred, the Big Orange came out firing in singles play, claiming one-set leads on courts 1, 2, 3 and 5.
Jarryd Chaplin lost on court 4, but Vols senior John Collins handled Clemson’s Zachary Rigsby at No. 5 singles, 6-1, 6-2 to get the Vols on board trailing 2-1.
Tennessee’s second point of the day came courtesy of 34th-ranked sophomore Hunter Reese, who dispatched 105th-ranked Hunter Harrington in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.
Then, after holding serve to force a second-set tiebreaker, Libietis – the nation’s No. 1-ranked singles player – requested an athletic trainer. Following a brief courtside treatment, Libietis proceeded to triumph in the tiebreaker, 7-4. His win gave the Vols their first lead of the day, 3-2.
That lead was short-lived, however, as Clemson’s Austin Ansari bested Jones in three sets to knot the match at 3-3.
That set the stage for Fickey’s hometown heroics on court No. 3.
“It’s an amazing feeling," Fickey said. "You always kind of dream about that, and I did it before at Wake Forest. But to do it in the NCAA Tournament is kind of picture perfect in a way. I can’t be prouder of my teammates and Tennessee.”