As Saturday’s match crossed the five-hour mark, the No. 21 Tech men’s tennis team found itself with a rare opportunity. Thanks to three victories in singles play, the Jackets had battled No. 11 Georgia to a 3-3 tie and, for the first time since 1988, had a chance to take down the traditionally powerful Bulldogs if they could win the final match of the contest.
Behind a strong comeback by senior Dean O’Brien, the Jackets got the job done.
Trailing 5-3 and facing elimination in the third and final set of a match that had been close throughout, O’Brien rebounded to win four consecutive games to defeat UGA’s Ignacio Taboada 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 and cap a thrilling 4-3 victory for the Jackets on Saturday, Feb. 12 at the Bill Moore Tennis Center.
“It’s a goal every year…[and] these guys deserved it. They’ve worked so hard, and…it’s hard to put into words what heart these guys have. We were down two team match points and there was not a doubt in anyone’s mind [about coming back],” said Head Coach Kenny Thorne.
O’Brien, playing the sixth flight for Tech, faced Taboada on court one in a highly contested match that saw the players split the first two sets. Taboada won the first set 6-4, but O’Brien bounced back by winning the first three games of the second set en route to a 6-3 victory.
For the first six games of the third set, both players held serve. O’Brien earned a triple break point in the seventh game, but Taboada won three straight points to force deuce and went on to win the game and pull ahead 4-3 in the set. The UGA junior then secured a break to pull ahead 5-3 and had a chance to serve for the match. With his back to the wall, O’Brien once again earned a triple break point, and this time he capitalized. The senior drilled a winner down the left side of the court to win the game, and behind strong service he took the next game to tie the set at 5-5.
Throughout the final set, O’Brien rarely made mistakes and almost never hit the ball long, wide or into the net. Often, the outcomes of points were determined by whether Taboada was able to connect on a winner before he made an error himself.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was five. I just wanted to put all that hard work into this and not miss a shot, and make sure that if [Taboada] wanted to win, he would have to play great tennis and beat me. He really did for a lot of the match; he just was unlucky at the end,” O’Brien said.
This was crucial in the final stretch: once again O’Brien reached a triple break point, and ultimately it was a Taboada error that allowed the Tech senior to earn another break and pull ahead 6-5.
O’Brien had a chance to serve for the match and capitalized. He pulled ahead 40-15, and when Taboada hit a backhand shot into the net, the entire Tech squad erupted in celebration as players and fans celebrated the historic victory.
“I cannot explain the feeling that I have right now. It’s indescribable…This was for everyone—for my teammates, the alumni and my coach,” O’Brien said. “We’ve been working hard all week, and I’m just glad I was able to be the one to finish it.”
The victory was a thrilling conclusion to a match that had been close from start to finish.
In doubles play, the Jackets’ top pair was able to hold its own early on but faded late in a battle of top-15 doubles tandems. Sophomore Juan Spir and junior Kevin King, ranked No. 8 together, trailed UGA’s No. 14 pair of Javier Garrapiz and Hernus Pieters 5-4, but Garrapiz and Pieters pulled away late for an 8-4 victory.
The match on court three appeared to be a lost cause after seniors Guillermo Gomez and O’Brien fell behind 6-0. However, they roared back, winning six of the next seven games to close to within 7-6 before UGA’s Wil Spencer and Drake Bernstein took the final game to win 8-6.
“We just told ourselves that every game counts. Whether we win or lose, we [needed] to get some momentum back for singles, and I think that might have been the key, to win those six games and make a match out of it,” O’Brien said.
The two doubles victories meant UGA took the doubles point, and so even though Tech seniors Eliot Potvin and Ryan Smith had been winning 6-4 on court two, their match was cut short.
The Jackets needed a strong performance from their top singles players and got it. UGA coach Manny Diaz elected to shuffle his lineup; rather than having his top player, No. 13 Garrapiz, face Tech’s best player, he had No. 53 Spencer face Tech’s No. 12 Gomez in the top flight and deployed Garrapiz in the second flight to face a supposedly easier opponent in No. 48 Juan Spir.
The move backfired. Spir jumped out to a quick lead and went on to take the first set, then bounced back from a 2-1 deficit in the second set to win the match 6-3, 6-4. Meanwhile, Gomez broke Spencer’s serve five times en route to a 7-5, 6-3 victory on court one.
“I got through a tough match, and…it was nice to have the crowd behind me,” Gomez said.
On court three, however, UGA secured a victory. No. 47 Sadio Doumbia gave Potvin plenty of problems and won 6-2, 6-3 to even the match at two points apiece.
The Bulldogs then took the lead with a victory in the fourth flight. King, who had played well in doubles, took the first set without much trouble but stumbled badly in the final two sets as Drake Bernstein defeated him 3-6, 6-2, 6-1. The Jackets got it back, however, as sophomore Magin Ortiga won a first-set tiebreaker and cruised in the second set for a 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 victory over UGA’s Pieters.
That set the stage for the thriller between O’Brien and Taboada. When Ortiga’s match finished, Taboada led 2-1 in the third set, and so the sixth-flight match received the attention of everyone in attendance as Taboada pulled ahead 5-3 and O’Brien came roaring back to take the match. O’Brien received a Gatorade bath as the Tech players and coaches celebrated the first victory over UGA since 1988, when the Jackets’ top two players were Thorne and women’s team Head Coach Bryan Shelton.
“As a Georgia Tech athlete, you always look [forward] to playing Georgia. And for us, since we have five seniors, it’s even more special. We wanted to leave with a win over Georgia, so this is unbelievable,” Gomez said.
“All the seniors need to hold their heads high. They took out Georgia in their senior year, and there’s something to be said for that…They fought, and that was a good Georgia team that we just beat,” Thorne said.
The Jackets will put their 3-0 SEC record on the line this weekend as they go on the road to face No. 28 Auburn on Sunday.