Duke junior Garrett Johns defeated Princeton's Ryan Seggerman in the first round of the NCAA Singles Championship before falling to Sam Riffice of Florida in the second round Tuesday. The defeat brings the junior’s successful season to an end.
Johns was dominant in his opening match, defeating the Princeton senior 6-2, 6-2. Despite the straight-set scoreline, Seggerman was a formidable opponent and the match was no cakewalk for the Georgia native. Johns’ strong performance against Princeton’s top singles player was a testament to his outstanding season at No. 1 for the Blue Devils, and head coach Ramsey Smith was complimentary after Tuesday's match.
“He played great in that first match. I think his preparation since the team championships has been really good, and he’s been focusing on taking time away, court position, playing aggressively and working a lot on serve-plus-one,” said Smith. “He played the No. 1 from Princeton, he was a very big player, a very big game. After the first two or three games, Garrett settled in and played almost a flawless match.”
However, the challenge would only increase for Johns after his first-round victory. His second-round opponent was Riffice, the Florida senior who won the 2021 NCAA Singles Championship. What’s more, Riffice was undefeated this regular season in singles in official conference play—he sported a fantastic 12-0 singles record in SEC matches—and was the captain of Florida's national-title winning team in 2021. In this year’s team championship, the senior gave up only four games in his first two matches. Clearly, Johns had a lot of work to do to secure a spot in the Round of 16.
“He’s clearly been one of the top players in college,” said Smith of Riffice. “He’s a very well-rounded player, he returns well, he’s got amazing feel in the hands, he’s really good at being aggressive on any opportunity, so it was important for Garrett to go after shots.”
But Johns held his own against the defending champion, as the two players battled back and forth in the first set until Riffice led 6-5 with Johns serving. At 0-15, Johns double-faulted to make it 0-30, leaving Riffice two points from the set. Here, Johns fought back and won the next point, but a missed volley in the following point would make the score 15-40 and give the Florida senior three set points. Riffice capitalized on this opportunity with an effective lob, forcing Johns to hit a between-the-legs shot that the Gator would volley away to take the first set 7-5.
Down a set, Johns dug in and battled back to go up a break in the second. Serving at 5-4, the junior won four straight points to take the set 6-4 and send the match to a deciding third set. Just as in the opening set, the two players went back and forth until Riffice led 6-5 with Johns set to serve. For the second time, Johns was unable to hold serve in this crucial game and force a tiebreaker, as Riffice broke to win the set 7-5 and advance to the next day of play.
What was the key to the Florida senior’s success against Johns? One answer is his exceptional drop shot. Riffice frequently employed a short-angle drop shot that seemed almost impossible to reach, and the tactic won the senior many easy points.
“What [Riffice] was doing with the drop shot was incredible, and that is something that I haven’t seen executed as well as he executed it,” said Smith. “Garrett is one of the fastest guys in the tournament, and at a certain point, we knew Riffice was going to drop shot and he was still able to do it effectively. He has some of the greatest hands in college tennis, and that was a play he executed almost to perfection. I think it was deep in the second set before he missed his first drop shot.”
Johns still has a lot to be proud of from this season. For starters, the junior sported an impressive 18-9 record in singles play ahead of Monday. It’s important to note that this winning record was earned playing in the top spot for the Blue Devils, meaning that Johns excelled facing the best of the best in college tennis. Johns also won the team's Most Valuable Player award toward the season's end.
“I’m just proud of how much he’s grown,” said Smith. “His composure was fantastic today and he’s worked extremely hard on his mental game, so that has definitely become a strength of this. And his commitment to playing a more aggressive style. His game was kind of built on a foundation of running and just making a lot of balls when he came into Duke, and now if you watched a lot of those big moments he had three deuce points in row where he came forward and finished off with a volley. Every part of Garrett’s game has gotten better.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.