By CLAY HORNING
NORMAN — The crowd was enthusiastic and reasonably good Saturday afternoon at Oklahoma’s Headington Family Tennis Center, where Oklahoma crushed Texas 4-1 and Baylor easily took care of TCU 4-1 in a pair of Big 12 men’s semifinal duals. Perhaps it will be yet bigger at 1 p.m. today, when the Sooners and Bears meet for Big 12 supremacy.
It’s not the Red River rivalry, but it is the conference’s two established heavyweights. Baylor has been one of the nation’s best tennis programs for some time now and the Sooners continue moving forward under fourth-year coach John Roddick.
A year ago, OU stopped Baylor in College Station to win its first Big 12 tennis title and today will mark the third straight season it’s been Sooners and Bears in the final.
“It’s going to be a tough match,” said Roddick, who was his brother Andy’s personal coach during the three years prior to his arrival in Norman. “It’s two good, talented teams.”
No. 14 OU and No. 13 Baylor have met once this season, April 12, in Waco. In that dual, only Sooner senior No. 1-man Costin Paval, the nation’s 19th-ranked player, returned home with a victory.
“I think we have a lot better idea of how to play them than we did before,” Roddick said. “They have a lot of new guys that we hadn’t seen. It’s going to be a good match. Hopefully, the home courts will help us a little bit.”
How the Sooners played Saturday might help them more.
They lost the doubles point, but stormed out of the gate when the singles began.
“Whatever momentum we had just went away so quickly in the singles, “ Texas coach Michael Center said. “We didn’t get any first sets … They just really whipped us after that, to be honest.”
At No. 3, OU’s Axel Alvarez Llamas was dominant, knocking off Texas’ Daniel Whitehead 6-2, 6-0.
Whitehead and Llamas were playing beside the No. 1 match, contested by Paval and Soren Hess-Olesen, who were playing long deuce-filled games, frequently disagreeing whether balls were in or out and, generally, putting on the best show on any of the six courts. Meanwhile, Llamas was a machine, routing Whitehead.
His teammates weren’t bad either, with Guillermo Alcorta winning the No. 2 match over Lloyd Glasspool 6-2, 6-2, Leonard Stakhovsky winning the No. 5 match over Sudanwa Sitaram 6-1, 6-4 and Dane Webb winning the No. 4 match over Nick Naumann 6-4, 6-4.
After Webb’s match went final, the dual was called, with OU No. 6-man Nick Papic up a set but down 4-5 in the second to Ben Chen, and Paval and Hess-Olesen deadlocked 2-2 in the final set after splitting the first two.
The crowd would have loved to have seen Paval and Hess-Olesen finish. Paval played the match on an emotional edge after being docked the opening point of the first set’s third game by the chair umpire, who didn’t care for Paval’s changeover outburst, one fueled by a crucial call that didn’t go his way in a prior game. Paval responded by winning five straight games to take the set.
Finally, when the match was halted, Paval and Hess-Olesen, after shaking hands, were jawing at each other until their coaches got them settled down.
The final may not bring that kind of emotion, but it ought to offer some fine tennis.
“We think our guys are playing well. We feel like we’re pretty balanced this year. We don’t feel we have a team that one guy really has to win,” Baylor coach Matt Knoll said. “We feel like we have seven points out there and it is just a matter of staying focused and fighting for every point.”
The Sooners’ victory a year ago was their first conference title since winning the old Big Eight in 1992. They would prefer not even a single-year drought before claiming another one.
“I know the guys are ready to play and they’re going to play hard,” Roddick said. “That’s all we can ask for.”