College Tennis: Early Season Preview and Results
Jeff McMillan, Tennis Atlantic
College tennis season is officially back in full swing! We had some great dual matches over the past weekend in the ITA indoor kickoff regionals in the second full weekend of the season. It is, of course, exceptionally early to be judging teams and players. However, based on early results there are a few teams that are obviously much better and much worse than a season ago.
I will explore which teams look to be the most improved from last year and also explore which teams appear to have taken significant steps back.
On The Upswing
Each and every year the Torreros put out a strong team, making them one of the top “mid-major” programs in the entire country. This 2016 team appears to be their strongest team yet. Sporting three top 100 ranked ITA players and a top 10 ranked doubles team, San Diego went into snowy Durham (something Cal was unable to do as they had to cancel their trip to Durham) and came out as the winners of the regional. The veteran Torreros used their experience and poise to knock off the Duke Blue Devils on their home court which is no easy feat no matter how young Duke is this year. Senior #35 Uros Petronijevic led the way with a huge 6-4 7-5 win over #12 Nicolas Alvarez at the #1 position. That win in addition to the doubles point set the tone for the match and allowed Filip Vitek and Joshua Page to seal the victory.
Perhaps even more impressive than the win over a non-vintage Duke team was the 4-0 domination of Vanderbilt in the 1st round of the regional. Never letting the Commodores have a sniff at the win.
San Diego will now go on to Charlottesville to compete against the best teams in the country. Their performance there will go a long way to show just how good this team can be. This is THE year for San Diego. The Senior leadership of Uros Petronijevic, Jordan Angus and Romain Kalaydjian plus Junior Filip Vittek create the strong base for the team. These guys have all been together for a few years now and know what it takes to get over the hump and are ready to do so. UMBC transfer Jaan Kononov, who has experience playing #1 at the D1 level adds another layer of depth and dimension to the team as well.
The key for San Diego this year will be whether they can finish the year in the top 16 or not. It is vital that they do so they can host their own regional for once and not rely on the NCAA tournament committee to once again ship them to USC or UCLA and once again be a victim of location. This win over Duke and Vandy shows just what this team can do if they are removed from the confines of LA where they are again and again subject to being sent. Top 16 is absolutely vital. I think they can do it. The Torreros are a top 10 sleeper this year.
Last year Kentucky had a historically bad season. They finished the year outside the top 75 and fell way down in the pecking order of the SEC. It was a hard year for a program that had been used to success and was pushing nationally elite in the days of Eric Quigley. But it seems that the hard times were short lived for the Wildcats. Early into the year it is evident already that this UK team is far more talented and better than the team from a season ago. This team is stronger at the top with a blossoming player in William Bushamuka who will shoot up the rankings more and more as the season goes on. Freshman Ryotaro Matsamura is a massive influx of talent at #2 for this team. He will combine with Bushamuka for a good one-two punch this year. The improvement was immediately apparent last weekend as they went to Duke and shocked the Blue Devils. That is exactly the type of win that the UK team of a year ago was not capable of. They followed that win up with a nice win over an improved Michigan team this past weekend. In both matches Kentucky dominated the top 3 positions with Bushamuka and Matsamura rolling joined with Nils Ellefsen at #3.
The Wildcats do show signs of weakness at the bottom 3 positions however, as they struggled to get wins at 4-6 vs both Duke and Michigan. But the strength of the top 3 could be enough to offset that weakness. Plus if and when Beck Pennington returns to the lineup the Wildcats should turn that strong top 3 into a strong top 4.
Even with the lack of depth this team is certainly lightyears better than the 2015 edition of the Kentucky Wildcats and will make a push for the tournament. The SEC is a big jumble in the middle and I could see the Wildcats pulling some upsets and eventually becoming the breakthrough team of 2016 in that league.
Tulane probably does not want to hear this after a gut-wrenching loss to Southern Cal in LA this past weekend but the Green Wave have one hell of a team this year and will be vying for a top 30 or even 25 spot this season. Not just any team can go into the City of Angels and take the mighty Trojans all the way to the wire. They were in the winning position for what would have been a massive upset and program changing win. The only negative you can take away from that effort in LA is that Tulane will now certainly not sneak up on anyone this year. Everyone in the college tennis world took notice of them after this weekend if they were not already aware of the team they have. Because this team is legit all across the board.
The current #1 ranked ITA player Dominik Koepfer spearheads the Green Wave’s ascension. He is backed by a nice mix of talented players including #63 Constantin Schmitz, #111 Sebastian Rey and the Van Cott twins.
Tulane made a move last year and was a much improved team from the 2014 team. They ended up being one of the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament, something that has undoubtedly made this year’s version even hungrier. They have all of their team back this year and they are a year stronger, more experienced and hungrier than ever to achieve more and I believe they will do just that and are my pick to win the American Athletic Conference this year.
It could be a dangerous proposition to put too much stock in a near win vs a team that is clearly down from a year ago but that is exactly what I am going to with the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks took Baylor to the absolute limit in Waco before ultimately falling in a 3rd set tiebreaker (a buster). Waco is one of those college tennis shrines where it is impressive to have a good performance there no matter how good the Baylor team is.
Last year, Oregon disappointingly missed out on the NCAA tournament and took somewhat of a step back from what was expected. However, the 2016 team looks better and back on track. Before falling in heartbreaking fashion to the Bears on Sunday, Oregon dismissed a pretty good Old Dominion team 4-1 and before that, beat a solid UC Santa Barbara team in routine 7-0 fashion. The Oregon of a year ago would have not beat those teams so soundly but they would have been in a battle. The ability to put away dangerous mid-majors like UCSB and Old Dominion shows that this team has its head in the right place. And the fact that they came to battle with Baylor also shows an improvement in team mentality and belief.
A big reason for this improvement is the addition of super talented Freshman Thomas Laurent of France. He is a big add for Oregon and probably one of the most talented freshmen that the Oregon program has ever taken in. He was the player who suffered the clinching rough loss at #2 to Maxime Tchoutakian which was always going to be a tough spot for a freshman to get a big win on the road like that. The rest of the lineup is well balanced, with no weaknesses and no stand outs. Opposing teams will not know where their points will come from during any given match vs Oregon. Oregon should make the tournament this year and could push the Cali Quad in matches in the Pac 12.
On The Upswing honorable mentions: Arkansas, UC-Santa Barbara, Fresno State, BYU, Buffalo
Tough times were predictable following the departure of the talent laden senior class of 2015. Hess-Olesen, Glasspool and Berkowicz were the backbone and the limbs of Texas tennis the past couple of seasons and to suddenly be deprived of them was always going to be a big blow.
With that being said, the reloading process does not appear to be off to a very good start. Liam Caruana was supposed to be a stud #1 and a big get for the Longhorns, but instead he is playing in the Australian Open Juniors event and has decided against going to Austin for college tennis. A brief glimpse at this Longhorn lineup and it is evident that this team is nowhere close to the top 10 level Texas had become accustomed to the past two seasons. The results have backed that up thus far. A bad loss to a decent but not great Washington team and a lopsided loss to Florida did nothing to show that Texas will be better than the lineup indicates. They did gain a little bit of momentum with a very gutsy comeback effort vs Ole Miss, where they rallied from a set down on four courts and came up just short on one of the four courts. But still that is three losses already into this very young season.
The main problem with this team is at the top. George Goldhoff must take the reins at #1 pretty much by default. He has not been a great player for Texas in his career so far even at the #4 position, you could even say he has been somewhat disappointing and now he must play #1? That is not a recipe for success. Freshman Harrison Scott should be a decent player but he cannot do it all himself. Rodrigo Banzer could help a little bit despite taking one on the chin at #3 vs Ole Miss. John Mee should be a solid bottom of the lineup player in his 2nd college season but early season results so far indicate he has taken a step back and will not be a big contributor so they must rely on less talented guys to hold down the bottom while struggling at the top.
The Big 12 will be brutal this year as every team aside from Texas looks to be absolutely loaded. Tough year ahead for the Longhorns.
One of the teams that looks to be significantly worse this year from a season ago is the Clemson Tigers. Things did not look good ever since the fairly poor fall results in the individual events and the results thus far have not shown any signs of improvement. Two lopsided losses to Dartmouth and Penn State this past weekend showed the lack of talent on the team. There was never a moment in either match where it looked like Clemson had a chance to win. There were not even any what I like to call “create your own victory” scenarios that coaches love to throw out there. And Penn State and Dartmouth are not world beaters. Good teams? Yes. Teams that should be beating you 6-1 if you are an ACC team? No
The real sting in the tail, however, was the loss to Mercer the previous weekend. Mercer is probably not a top 150 caliber team (shown by their awful 6-1 loss to Southern Illinois after beating Clemson).
Now how did Clemson get to this point? Remember this team is only 2 years removed from back-to-back NCAA tournament 2nd round appearances, being only 1 court away from a Sweet 16 trip each year. The answer is talent. This team has lost a lot of talent recently and has not replaced it. Luke Johnson is a very solid player at the #5 or #4 position but he is having to play #1 now, pretty much by default (much like Goldhoff of Texas as mentioned above). Alexandre Favrot was a bigtime recruit and is supposed to be a great player for Clemson this year. It would probably be best to put him at #1 and see what he can do versus the top talents in the country. The lack of growth from a few of the players at the bottom of the lineup hurts the team as well. Certain players have not shown improvement and therefore they accumulate quite a few losses lower in the lineup. And let’s not forget that Hampton Drake transferred to Duke after having a solid end to 2015 last year.
It’s unlikely that this team will finish the year in the top 75. They will need to have a few upsets in order for that to happen. They will need big contributions from some of the lower lineup guys and hope that Favrot has a breakout year at #1.
The Louisville Cardinal are a hard team to figure out, mainly because they lack an identity and their team seems to be a jumble of players who don’t mesh well together. They are clearly not as good as a year ago thanks to the departure of Sebastian Stiefelmeyer, who had one of the best breakout years in the country last year for an individual. So far this year, they have been roughed up by Northwestern, roughed up by Memphis and lost to UC Santa Barbara in a surprise. They showed no lineup consistency in any of those 3 matches. Yes, it is early in the year and they have a very young team, so it is normal to fit and piece things together to see where players fit. But it is a little odd to have players drop in and out of the lineup the way Louisville does (they did this to an extent last year as well).
For instance, Jeffrey Brown and Sean Donohue did not make an appearance in the singles lineup vs UCSB and Brown not vs Memphis either despite player at 2 and 3 vs Northwestern. Also Christopher Morin-Kougoucheff did not play singles in the Cardinals first 2 matches against good competition and then suddenly appears at #3 vs UCSB. This type of lineup inconsistency will certainly keep the opposition guessing but at the cost of destroying team chemistry and individual confidence. This team will need to find some solid answers moving forward but it is looking unlikely with the lack of talent on the roster.
Clemson was not the only team from the Palmetto state that had a rough weekend on the road this past weekend. The Gamecocks equaled their rival’s tough weekend in New Hampshire with a tough weekend of their own in Columbus by falling in consecutive matches to Denver and Wichita State.
On paper, the Gamecocks should really be better this year than they were a year ago. They have an influx of some new talented freshmen and appear to have more depth plus they lost automatic loss machine Andrew Adams to graduation. So what exactly is going on with this team? They have issues at the top, with no dominant #1 type of player. The depth also appears to not be as strong as originally thought.
Gamecock coach Josh Goffi has made it a big point of emphasis in recent years to recruit Americans. This wins him some fans with those who believe college tennis has too many foreigners (I am not one of those people, I like foreigners playing the college game). Goffi gets praised for Americanizing the roster but does not get knocked for the team accumulating losses. You have to wonder if they are just relying too heavily on American freshmen to step in and immediately make a big impact in the college game. It is clear that Yancy Dennis in particular is going to need some time to adapt to the college game before being a big contributor for this team. O’Keefe and Mayronne will have to shoulder a lot of the burden if this team is to be competitive in the SEC this year. Can they do it? It will definitely help if Gabriel Friedrich ever returns from injury. All is not lost for this team (unlike the other 3 on this list), but things will be tough regardless.
Sliding Downward honorable mentions: Duke, Baylor, UTSA, UL-Lafayette
There is still a ton of tennis left to be played. We have only seen 5% of what these teams can do so far. Nothing is guaranteed. Any of these teams written about or listed in the honorable mentions can prove me wrong one way or another. One thing I CAN guarantee though is that this college tennis season will be 100% free from match fixing. And that is definitely not something the ATP can say.