April 23, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
For all the markings that make Guillermo Gomez and Kevin King different – and their being from Alicante, Spain, and Peachtree City, Ga., respectively and respectably seems to be a start in that direction – they are in some undeniable ways alike.
Both have followed their still-young hearts in making life decisions, and their hearts seem bouncy and yellow-green with a little fuzz on the outside. Plus, the two young men at the top of the men’s tennis lineup that will open play in the ACC Tournament in Cary, N.C., Friday share an opinion.
They couldn’t care less that Tech lost three straight matches before closing the regular season with a win Sunday over Virginia Tech because in their minds that match was evidence of progress.
So, before the No. 24 Yellow Jackets play a rematch against the No. 20 Hokies, how high do Gomez – the nation’s No. 3-ranked player – and King (No. 78) think the Jackets can go? “We can be 1,” said Gomez, who is ranked higher nationally than any male player in Tech history. “I truly believe we can be No. 1.”
Here’s the logic (spread over a few paragraphs): After an eight-game winning streak, the Jackets played back to back matches two weekends ago at Duke and North Carolina, now ranked No. 17 and 18 nationally.
They fell 4-3 at Duke on Saturday, the decisive moment of the match coming in the form of a three-set heart-breaker where Miguel Muguruza came up on the wrong end at No. 4 singles. Then, the Jackets were flat the next day, losing 5-2 at North Carolina.
A week later, the Jackets lost 5-2 at home to No. 1-ranked Virginia, which has won 58 straight ACC matches and is favored to win the national title. Tech lost the doubles point 2-1, and was competitive in multiple singles matches, going to three sets.
Another disappointing result. Yet the next day, the Jackets beat visiting Virginia Tech 4-3, and Muguruza was again in the decisive match. This time, he won. There was plenty on the line. The two Techs tied for fourth place, but the Jackets won the tiebreaker – and a bye Thursday – by virtue of last Sunday’s victory over the Hokies.
“The next day [after the Duke loss] against UNC was a tough match,” said King, a sophomore with an 11-3 singles record after missing the fall and a few early spring matches with a shoulder injury. “Some of us came out a little slow. Chemistry plays an important role. It’s mostly mental. The coaches do a good job of making you aware, making each practice seem like a match.
“In the end, it’s up to you to take it to heart.”
Gomez is convinced the Jackets have done that. He’s 26-6 in the fall and spring seasons combined despite battling a sports hernia last fall and a sprained ankle early in the spring.
“Usually when you lose, your motivation goes down a little bit,” he said of the Jackets’ listless performance at North Carolina. “You’re not as happy as if you win, but it’s something that we learned from. We lost to Virginia last weekend, and came back and won against Virginia Tech, and the same player who lost the clinching match at Duke won the clinching match against Virginia Tech.”
Sounds like a man with a plan. That would not be the first time.
Gomez, who chose Tech when some friends visiting the school encouraged him to check it out, came to the U.S. because, while he hopes to one day play professional tennis, he also wants to prepare for the possibility that a pro career won’t work out. He did not want to go pro out of high school, yet in Europe few colleges or universities offer athletic programs.
So here he is, in the U.S., where one of the factors that prodded him into choosing Tech over Pepperdine was the fact the Waves don’t have a football team – an American football team.
More importantly, Pepperdine didn’t offer his major, and the junior industrial engineering major said, “I would like to have my own business some day. Having a degree from Georgia Tech [Dec., 2011], I’m going to have a wide range of options; I’m going to be able to choose from different jobs. It’s going to be easy for me to find something I like if I can’t do what I really like, which is tennis.”
Had Gomez gone pro already, he’d be paying for coaching, athletic trainers and more. “He could do OK on the tour, but getting a degree takes the pressure off of him,” coach Kenny Thorne said. “You should see the eyes of these [international] guys when they come to Georgia Tech [on recruiting trips]; the weight room, the training table, indoor courts, a strength coach, traveling on a sleeper bus.
“They don’t understand how big college sports is, and paying for that on your own if you want to go on tour, it’s quite a lot of money per year to be able to sustain.” King and his family also made a big tennis-oriented life decision a couple years ago. Having attended private schools when he was younger, King opted to home school through Pennsylvania-based Keystone National High school. “In a public school the flexibility would not have been as good for traveling for tournaments,” he said.
Also, when King’s youth coach, Sean Ferreira, moved to Cary, N.C., a few years ago, home-schooling enabled King to spent a lot of time there during his junior and seniors seasons. Coincidentally, the ACC championships are being played in Cary. The sophomore said he knew for before coming to Tech that he wanted to go into some sort of math and/or science field, and he’s chosen mechanical engineering. “He and his dad went over every major, looked deep into what he would be doing once you had a job in that field,” Thorne said.
Folks might be surprised at another of Gomez’ criteria for choosing Tech. “I was looking for very good academics, and a very good coach. I wasn’t looking for an unbelievable team,” he said. “I wanted to go to a place where I could win a championship but not a team that’s already a champion; a team that’s kind of building. If you go to a team that’s already really good, you don’t see how you help. And since I want to play pro after college the coach was important. I think Kenny is the best.”
Gomez said he’s coming back to school for his senior season, and Thorne, whose team has improved from 10-11, 5-6 ACC last spring to 16-6, 7-4 this, expects to have his entire roster back. Then, maybe the Jackets will be best . . . if it doesn’t happen before then.
“Any time you go to a team, a lot of the fun is going from a pretty good team to a great team,” the coach said. “I tell you, to see the thrill of these guys as their ranking keeps rising, a lot of firsts are happening.”