Good Beginning for Tech's Men's Tennis Team

Jan. 21, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Pretext: Breaking form here, which is kind of funny since I really don’t have one. Having wondered whether I can do long form in the vein of, say, Grantland founder Bill Simmons of ESPN.com fame, I’m combining that curiosity with a motive driven by Friday’s proximity to the Georgia Tech men’s tennis team.

Every time I’m around the Tech players, I can’t help but think I should author a book about coaches on the Flats, and their respective philosophies. Without fail, Kenny Thorne and Bryan Shelton say things that I feel should be immortalized.

It’s no longer easy, after my 25 years in the biz, to impress me to emotion. Yet Shelton, Thorne and the goings on around the Tech tennis teams make it happen. I love the feeling. I used to get jazzed going to high school football games, and a few years after that it took Super Bowls.

Age, I guess, has dulled certain senses. They always seem to come alive again around these players.

Pretext II: There will be a post-text.

Pretext III: There will be very few numbers involved hereafter, which is unlike Simmons. Eh, whatdya gonna do?

Pretext IV: There’s long been a part of me that believes Simmons took my form public before I got the chance.

When, At Last, Georgia Tech’s season opener ended, there was a comfortable feeling in the Bill Moore Tennis Center.

Players were schmoozing with Aljosa Piric, as they have for a few years. Difference was, they were schmutzing with the opposing coach.

The Yellow Jackets skunked Old Dominion 7-0 Friday, and it wasn’t that close as the former Tech assistant’s team barely competed.

But while there was enough on display to effect optimism for Sunday’s much more real match at Tennessee, so much remains unfamiliar, unpredictable, unknown. There is not yet an identity for this team, for the fall season portends only tangentially toward the spring. Tech has six new players, five of whom are currently eligible, on a nine-man roster.

Yet, they’re ranked No. 13 in the nation.

That’s a heck of a tribute (or insanity) to returning players Kevin King, Juan Spir and Dusan Miljevic, or the presence of defending ITA national coach of the year Kenny Thorne, or a tip of the hat to some hellacious recruiting. Or all of the above.

Everybody won Friday. The Jackets swept doubles 3-0, and then swept singles 6-0 (doubles count only one point).

There was enough to be seen Friday to know that the Jackets have talent. Thorne has made sure of that. Sometimes, often times, that’s not enough.

With Guillermo Gomez having graduated, it’s not yet clear if Tech has an Alpha Male, and that’s essential. I had this debate with Paul Hewitt for a few years, and he battled me.

Somebody has to set an example, preferably more than one player, and I’m not saying in any way shape or form that this tennis team does not but rather than it’s not clear yet who that might be.

I’m not saying that will have as much to do with the Jackets’ success in the spring as their talent level, but it might because it often does.

Chemistry, which is a catch-all word for a lot of things, is a wildly unpredictable deal.

At times, there is friction among the troops. There’s a line, fine or not, between competitive angst and cohesion. You don’t want too much of either. Where do the Jackets stand after finishing last season ranked No. 13 in the nation, and with the ITA national coach of the year running the show?

Who knows yet?

“If you could take one thing and put it from a senior into a freshman, it’s being comfortable in whatever environment, whether at home or on the road,” Thorne said. “You can talk about it so much. It’s a matter of them understanding their identity is this on a tennis court, it doesn’t matter what court.”

That’s a coach looking ahead, knowing that Sunday’s match at Tennessee will be a different deal. Thorne knows ya gotta have muscle, which in tennis is more about tight gray matter than sinew.

Looking for analogous athletic example?

The Hawks, despite their poor showing in Philadelphia last night, have a new sort of oomph. I cover that team (at home) for NBA.com, and I can validate what Charles Barkley said a couple weeks ago when he thought he was off-air: Atlanta had too many nice guys.

Then, Ivan Johnson arrived.

If you know nothing about the 27-year-old rookie, you should. Dude is a brute.

He went to two junior colleges, was kicked out of Oregon for anger management issues, and then went to Division II Cal State-San Bernandino.

From there, he played in South Korea, China and Puerto Rico, and in that time was banned from the Korean League for misbehavior.

Last year, he starred — seriously, starred — in the D-League.

He takes no crap.

After a recent win over the Timberwolves, where he bludgeoned Kevin Love down the stretch and then made two free throws with four seconds left for a two-point win, he made it clear he takes no prisoners, and fears no player or situation.

He didn’t even know who Love was.

“My thing is I don’t really watch basketball so I don’t know who anybody is and when I match up against them, it’s just a regular player,” he said. “I know the main players, like LeBron, Kobe and Wade, but all the extra ones I don’t know. Even if I did [know], I wouldn’t be afraid; we’re playing basketball.”

That’s what Thorne’s got going on. Tennessee and its atmosphere will be tough. Who should give a whip?

“I keep coming back to identity. It’s huge in tennis. If you know who you are, you can relax and go out there and do it,” the coach said. “It doesn’t matter the environment. Let’s just do what we do.` “

It may not yet be clear what the Jackets are, but it’s still clear who they are. They’re people, not robots, which is why we have so many unpredictables.

After Miljevic finished wiping out Alfredo Rodriguez 6-1, 6-1, and shortly before the four hour, 15-minute match ended, Piric was nearby as Miljevic and his opponent moved to their benches to pack.

The elder leaned over toward the junior and a Bosnian to a Serbian, a coach to a new-found antagonist said, “I just tapped him and, ‘You’re playing well, man; keep it up.’ We had this thing when he was playing well I always used to tell him in his language the same thing.”

One match in, the Jackets are playing well. Their chances of continuing to play depend only slightly more on skill than the way they approach their work.

Should be fun to watch.

“I just hope these guys have a great season this year. They look great,” Piric said. “With Kevin playing as well as he is, and new guys and Juan being the great player that he is I think that they can have a great season. I’m looking forward to following their results.”

For a better idea about Piric and his remarkable story of flight from war-torn Bosnia, check this out.

As you might surmise, I’ve been in a weird state of mind, which the link in the first sentence may have suggested. I’ve played Etta James’ song a dozen times through my earphones. She died Friday. I’m not a big Etta James fan, but that song — At Last — is a big part of my life. When I was a lad growing up in Columbus, Ohio, we traveled frequently to visit my grandmother in Celina, Ohio. She owned a restaurant, a steak house to be precise. On weekends, after dinner hour, it turned into honky-tonk of sorts.

This James song was among many on the juke box that turned up often. Those are memories burned on my brain. The lights would go down at a certain point, and the juke box would play (unless there was a band, which happened sometimes), and my brothers and I would run around like we owned the place.

We sat on the tall bar stools, raced under the booths, snuck into the dining room to steal ice cream out of the freezer, rode the dumbwaiter elevator up and down, snuck around in the walk-in freezer downstairs.

All the time, there were songs like, “At Last.”

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