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Back To Basics

Oct. 3, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Kevin King and Juan Melian Puigventos won matches Monday in the qualifying tournament for the ITA All-American Championships, which was a familiar feeling within the Georgia Tech men’s tennis program.

There have been plenty of foreign feelings recently for coach Kenny Thorne, and foreign faces, too.

His seven-man squad includes three freshmen, and Puigventos transferred to Tech over the summer from Georgia Southern.

Should the Yellow Jackets add another transfer in January, which is likely, more than half Thorne’s spring roster will be new relative to the one that went to the third round of last year’s NCAA championships.

What does this mean? It’s back to basics, even for veterans King, Juan Spir and Dusan Miljevic.

“It’s interesting because we’re going back in our practices to some of the fundamentals as far as doubles, and the mindset of the entire program,” Thorne said. “We didn’t need to do that at all last year. Hopefully the [upperclassmen] are actively listening.”

The coach grinned when he said that. While there may be some frustration in having to simplify his approach this fall, there also will hopefully be significant reward. All these players are talented, but talent alone is not enough.

So, they go back to tennis school. Quite a bit of time is spent on doubles not only because players have spent less time at it previously, but also because it promotes bonding.

“We got back to some of the basics that every kid has learned: how to position yourself for a first serve, not doing things like watching your partner hit in doubles . . . the fundamentals of moving, and anticipating,” Thorne said.

“Knowing each other, learning what the strengths and weaknesses of your partner, where he’s probably going to go when a ball is hit, that’s critical. In singles, it’s about setting up patterns.”

Saturday, while Miljevic was dropping a match in pre-qualifying action for the ITA All-American Championships in Tulsa, Okla., the freshmen stayed home with to play in the Georgia Tech Invitational.

Maybe it wasn’t a foreign feeling at the Bill Moore Tennis Center, but it wasn’t normal. After Eduardo Segura Mandarino won his first match and dropped his second, the Jackets were left with no players in their own tournament.

Fellow freshmen Vikram Hundal and Colin Edwards were unable to compete in singles because of injuries. Injuries earlier forced them to retire from their doubles match.

King, ranked No. 85 in the nation, and Puigventos, ranked No. 97, are entered in the qualifying draw of the tournament, which is being played currently, and Spir, ranked No. 34, will play in the main draw later this week.

Spir and King, who advanced to the national semifinals together last spring, will pair up in the main draw in Tulsa as well.

Many teams split their rosters, especially when they have so many new faces, in part because, “The ITA All-American is just tough to handle as a first-year guy, and we don’t usually do it,” the coach said.

As Thorne was on his way to earning national coach-of-the-year honors last fall and spring, he had the luxury of experience and no freshmen.

In their previous tournament, King and Spir were split up and played doubles with new teammates rather than with each other. The goal is to build toward the spring season, which includes ACC action, and the national tournaments.

When crunch time rolls around, Spir and King will almost certainly be together again, as they will be at the ITA tournament later this week.

“I think it helps guys to play with some of the veterans on the team. They move along quicker,” Thorne said. “We know what we have in Juan and Kevin. That knowledge is in the book.”

That knowledge goes beyond the court. The Jackets may have an unusual number of new faces, but that doesn’t mean they’re starting completely from scratch. King and Miljevic are seniors, and Spir is a junior.

They all know the program.

“I think the veterans have earned the right to be heard. We talk about taking ownership of the team, and every coach loves it when it comes from within,” Thorne said. “I would say Kevin has been a natural leader. He was a captain last year.

“He’s earned the right by being through injuries and showing up at practice offering to do whatever he can to help. There has to be a leader every year. Turnover gives everybody an opportunity to earn whatever position they want.”

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