ATHENS, Ga. — Tim Siegel took a risk when he switched up his doubles lineup midway through the season, gambling that chemistry could be better than familiarity.
It didn’t take long for the Texas Tech tennis coach to begin seeing big returns after moving Gonzalo Escobar up a spot to No. 1 doubles with Raony Carvalho.
The 18th-ranked duo, already the most successful in Texas Tech postseason history, continued that trend on Sunday, defeating the No. 17 Ole Miss team of Chris Thiemann and Marcel Thiemann 6-4, 6-2 in the NCAA semifinals at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex to earn a spot in today’s doubles championship match.
The Red Raiders will face Ohio State’s top-ranked and top-seeded team of Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola, who defeated Oklahoma’s No. 10 team of Costin Paval and Dane Webb 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. Today’s match will begin after the singles finals, which begin at noon, are completed.
Siegel’s midseason shakeup broke with some longstanding roster positions. Carvalho was a four-year No. 1 doubles player with two and a half years of experience with teammate Rafael Garcia and had not shared the spot with Escobar, who was up to that point a four-year No. 2 doubles player. But the two were close friends, and Carvalho said he considered asking his coach to make the move a year earlier.
Once together, they clicked almost instantly as they began practicing shortly before the Red Raiders hosted Louisville in early March.
“When we started playing, it was automatic,” Escobar said. “I remember the day we started practicing. We won so many points in a row and we were just surprised at how well things were going for us.”
The Texas Tech duo defeated their Louisville counterparts 8-4 in their first match together and have maintained that pace, losing but once since — to the Oklahoma team that fell in Sunday’s semifinals.
“They have the talent, they have the energy, and most of all, they have the chemistry,” Siegel said. “They like playing with each other. They have fun out there.”
That was evident Sunday as the pair exchanged animated high-fives and handshakes between points and jumped into the other’s arms after defeating Ole Miss.
It also doesn’t hurt that their styles offset the other’s weaknesses. Carvalho can intimidate with big serves and booming shots while Escobar executes with delicate precision and speed, Siegel said.
“Everybody talks about tactics and everything and what to do and how to play doubles,” Escobar said. “Since we’ve been trying to play, we really don’t care. We just try to make it about what we know how to do. ... We try to use what we know how to do and complement each other.”
In whatever combination they brought it, their game was too much for Ole Miss on Sunday. The Red Raiders led 5-1 in the first set before Ole Miss mounted a rally, and after losing the first point of the second set, scored the next five to take a commanding lead.
Sunday’s semifinal may not have been Ole Miss’ best match, but the Rebels played well enough to break serve once and challenge the Red Raiders, Siegel said.
“What was interesting was that, overall, this may have been a match that Ole Miss didn’t come out playing that well,” Siegel said. “I thought the rhythm of the match, the level of play, wasn’t as strong as it was earlier. But our guys have so much confidence to break serve. We got broken twice the entire tournament because they’re moving so well and doing such a great job.
Maybe the run was unpredictable — and unlikely considering Siegel, in two decades, said he has never coached a team past the first round — but it was nothing shocking to Carvalho, of Brazil, and Escobar, of Ecuador.
“I don’t think it was a surprise being in the finals because, of course, we were practicing to be at this moment now,” Carvalho said. “But we had no idea what would happen the moment we got here. But we always believed we could beat any team.”
In the men’s individual semifinals, top-ranked Johnson won 6-4, 7-5 against Stanford’s Bradley Klahn, the last person to defeat him before his 71-match winning streak began in January 2011. Johnson advanced to face Kentucky’s Eric Quigley at noon today. Quigley defeated Ohio State’s Rola 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (1).
Johnson fought off Bradley’s rally in the second set to hold on for an opportunity to win a second consecutive individual championship.
“Bradley’s a competitor, as big a competitor as they come,” Johnson said. “Really, to have him kind of roll down and not fight back would have been more of a shock to me. I knew he was going to come out. I made a big serving mistake 30-15 up in that game serving 2-0. He hits a winner and then he comes up with an incredible lob. There’s not much you can do about it, and after that it was trading holds until I was fortunate enough to get that break at 5-6.”
Johnson and Quigley met once before with Johnson taking a 6-4, 6-2 victory in the quarterfinls of last season’s NCAA team championships and said he hopes the experience helps him today.
“I know he’s going to play,” Johnson said of Quigley. “He’s going to come out and hit the ball hard and go for his shots. ... I know what it takes to beat him, and hopefully I can beat him (today).”