Commodores top off intense regular season with SEC title

Vanderbilt took down Florida in a top-five matchup Sunday to earn the SEC tournament's top seed.

Photo courtesy of Joe Howell/Vanderbilt Athletics

As No. 5 Vanderbilt battled No. 1 Florida on Sunday for the SEC regular-season title, a memorable scene unfolded at the Currey Tennis Center.

Commodore fans of all shapes and sizes packed the stands. On an 80-degree day, some sat in the court-side bleachers, using umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun beating down on their backs. One attendee’s Jack Russell Terrier lapped at the tip of a water bottle as the action played out.

Vanderbilt senior Sydney Campbell was unfazed. Shortly before reaching match point, she had thrown away her chance to serve for a team victory by stringing together multiple errors. But Campbell manipulated Florida’s Josie Kuhlman over a multi-shot rally before forcing a short return off to her right side.

Even with her mistakes in the past game, everyone knew then the back-and-forth match was over.

And so it was. Campbell stepped up from the baseline and laced a forehand winner down the line, as her teammates exploded with excitement and greeted her on the court. The pressure was released, and the Commodores had earned their first regular-season league championship in Geoff Macdonald’s 23 years as head coach.

“Imagine that pressure she was just under and to handle it like that,” Macdonald said of Campbell. “I liken it to having to kick a field goal to win the Super Bowl into the wind from 45 yards — for about half an hour. The pressure’s amazing. You have to be really resilient and regroup if things don’t go your way, and she did.”

Campbell’s 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory put a bow on a historic regular season for the ‘Dores. After dropping four non-conference matches, all to teams ranked inside the top 15 nationally, Vanderbilt ripped through the SEC to finish 12-1. A 4-2 win at current top-five team Georgia signaled the Commoores’ toughness early in conference play, and they now ride an eight-game win streak into this coming week’s SEC tournament at the Currey Center.

After playing one of the hardest schedules in the country, Macdonald’s team had been well prepared for matches like Sunday’s. Twenty-one of the Commodores’ 22 matches have been against major-conference competition, and yet they sport a 17-5 overall record.

“We sort of believe in playing such hard competition that you learn this level and you just come to accept this is gonna be hard,” Macdonald said. “There are going to be bumps, and this is how you respond. I give them a ton of credit. It’s a hard level, and they’ve risen to it.”

This particular match fit exactly what Macdonald described. Florida entered the week with a sizable lead over No. 2 Georgia in the ITA rankings, and none of the individual matchups were walkovers. Without Campbell’s win, Vanderbilt would have needed unranked freshman Emma Kurtz to mount a comeback against 37th-ranked singles player Anna Danilina.

By the time Campbell clinched the match, Kurtz trailed 3-6, 6-6. Florida probably would have won if not for the senior’s clutch first-set tiebreak win.

“Kuhlman’s a really tough out,” Macdonald said. “That’s a great Florida team. They were really classy in a tough loss. But for Sydney to win on Senior Day at home, it’s really amazing.”

Led by Campbell and junior Astra Sharma — who defeated Belinda Woolcock 6-2, 6-4 Sunday in a showdown between elite singles players — Vanderbilt has a chance to double its glory next week at the conference tournament. By earning the No. 1 seed, the ‘Dores will avoid facing Florida or Georgia until the final round.

While the conference’s strength means most opponents will provide stiff competition, holding the top seed still represents a significant advantage. That made Sunday’s win even more important as the team looks ahead to Friday’s 3 p.m. CT quarterfinal match.

“We often think of the SEC and conference tournament as as intense and difficult as the NCAA tournament,” Macdonald said. “There’s no difference. You’re playing the best teams in the country. To take both would be amazing, but right now we’re just going to enjoy this.”

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