Inseparable

May 12, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Spend any substantive time around the Georgia Tech men’s and women’s tennis programs, and it will become clear that coaches Kenny Thorne and Bryan Shelton are to great degrees split from the same cloth.

Thorn-ton’s coaching philosophies overlap, their personalities are similarly gregarious, both smile a great deal, their families come into conversation easily, and they relish what they do for a living.

As their respective teams prepare to host simultaneous NCAA regionals for the first time in Tech history, their shared past and present ought come to the fore even though both tried to deflect attention to their athletes and each other.

Sh-orne have lived tennis for a long time, pre-dating their time working out of offices a few feet from each other, predating their time spent on the pro tour as players, pre-dating their time as teammates at Tech to . . .

When they routinely wanted to slaughter one another.

These gentlemen go back 32 years or so to when they weren’t gentlemen at all but rather a couple skin-and-bones lads of roughly sixth-grade stature. Once upon a time, a white kid from Hot Springs, Ark. (Thorne) and a black youngster from Huntsville, Ala., began banging into one another on the juniors circuit.

A couple years later, when the Thorne family moved to Florence, Ala., and young Kenny took residency under Shelton’s Marine-like coach, Bill Tym, there was no sign that the two would one day co-exist peacefully.

Instead, there were searches for gauze, ice and something – anything – that might offer a boost of energy or guile so that one might get a leg up on the other.

Although they shared misery, the spirit of cooperation was defined differently then. The goal was to pummel the guy on the other side of the practice net.

“Absolutely; initially, and to the end,” said Shelton, who won two professional singles tournaments and two doubles titles. “That helped us go as far as we did. From the time we were 13 all the way through college and even afterward professionally . . . we played each other thousands and thousands of practice sets.

“We were constantly pushing each other, and trying to beat each other’s brains out. At the same time, when we weren’t playing [each other] we were rooting for the other guy to do well.”

Truth be told, that last part took a while to develop. It did, though, and here they are now. Thorne and Shelton ranked 1-2 in Tech history in singles wins when their college careers ended in 1988 (they’re now 2-3 behind senior Guillermo Gomez), and they’ve become the most successful tennis coaches in school history.

Shelton, whose 2007 squad won the only NCAA national team title in Tech history (football titles are not and never have been officially awarded by the NCAA), has landed his squads in the NCAA tournament 12 straight times. His teams have won or shared four ACC regular-season titles, and won four ACC tournament titles.

Thorne, whose senior-laden squad earned the right to host an NCAA regional for the second time in school history (1997) has steered the Jackets to the NCAAs 10 times in his 13 years. He was instrumental in recruiting Shelton away from a job with the USTA to coach the Tech women a year after he began with the men.

No regrets included.

When pressed to cite differences between himself and Shelton and their philosophies and styles, Thorne double-faulted – whiff-whiff.

“He coaches women, I coach men,” he said with a smirk. “I really think our philosophies are not different. I’ve learned some things from him about issues that I might not have done on my own. That’s probably a blessing for my program.

“Bryan has always raised the bar with tennis and a lot of different areas of my life. I’d see him out there hitting serves, and say, `Kenny, get your butt out and get some serves in.’ That competition, you can either fight it or use it to get better. He’s made me a better player, a much better coach and a much better person.”

There is an obvious tendency to refer to the men’s and women’s programs separately. Shelton doesn’t exactly take issue with that, but then, well, he sort of does. It has been a goal to host NCAA regionals simultaneously, he said.

“Kenny and I, people don’t know it, but we continue to work hand-in-hand with both of these teams. We’re constantly talking and trying to figure it out, and get better, develop, situational things with players, recruiting and just going back and forth with ideas.

“We’re always on the same page, working together, so it’s not men’s and women’s. It’s coaching staffs that work together, and for us both to be in this position on the same weekend, that’s a great feeling.”

This weekend’s winners will advance to the NCAA “Sweet 16” at Stanford.

Thorne’s taken 10 of his 13 teams to the NCAAs.

He’ll have a crack at the championships. If the Yellow Jackets beat Middle Tennessee State in a 1 p.m. match at the Bill Moore Tennis Center, on Saturday they’ll play the winner of Mississippi State-Florida State for the right. Tech has beaten both MSU and Florida State this season, and is 10-1 at home. That lone loss came to No. 1 Virginia.

“Going to win a national title, what an incredible thing [Shelton and his team did in `07]. We had a terrible year that year; 7-16 was our record,” said Thorne, who won seven pro singles titles and registered four wins over four top-10 opponents. “I couldn’t have been happier than sitting in the stands and jumping up and down and running out on the court hugging the guy.

“It was just an unbelievable feeling that he did it. Did I want to do it?

Absolutely. Was I jealous? No, we dealt with all that in the past. He’ll come to me with questions, and I’ll go to him. I value his opinion immensely. I think he’s a great coach. I think he’s the best women’s coach in the nation, I really do. He could be the best coach in the nation, honestly.”

Shelton, like Thorne, is remarkably easy to speak to without feeling uncomfortable, and both men have solid track records for churning out graduates in a sport that at times is rife with transfers. There’s a lot of good there, a lot in common.

“I’m so thrilled for his team, for Kenny, for what they’ve accomplished this season,” Shelton said. “Obviously, beating Georgia [earlier this spring, for the first time in 23 years] was one of the highlights for me since I first started coaching.

“Seeing that happen, to be here for that . . . in front of a capacity crowd, that was a great day. They’re not finished. They’ve got a veteran team that’s primed and ready. Both teams hopefully will feed off of each other, and go west together.” The women open Saturday at noon against Jacksonville, before the men’s regional wraps up on the same courts.

It’s a good bet Thorne will nearby. After all, as Shelton said, “Since we were 13 years old, until now – insert big laugh here — we’ve just been completely stuck to each other.”

They’re side by side this weekend, hosting NCAA regionals together for the first time.

Thorne said, “It is a big deal. It’s pretty cool.”

Cool indeed. Tennis fan or not, you ought to check out the environment this weekend at the Bill Moore Tennis Center. Thoughts to stingdaily@gmail.com

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