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Springing Ahead

Jan. 12, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

The first day of “spring” tennis practice was in a way like the start of football practice although it had nothing to do with pad level.

Georgia Tech men’s coach Kenny Thorne was on the guys about getting down, playing lower. Right off the bat, they were too upright in taking strokes, they weren’t bending their legs enough nor loading for shots quite like they will have to in order to maximize.

Shoot, when it came time to gather balls, the coach even got on the Yellow Jackets about bending their knees to pick them up rather than simply bending at the waist.

“It’s about the fundamentals of athletics,” Thorne said. “About running.”

The Yellow Jackets appear to have plenty to maximize, and perhaps to end up high … in national rankings.

Even with five “newcomers,” they last week were ranked No. 15 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.

That was a tip of the cap to a few returning players, the prospects of new guys, and to the presence of Thorne himself. He was, after all, the ITA national coach of the year in 2011.

Tech was 21-6 last year, and senior Kevin King and junior Juan Spir are back, and ranked as the nation’s No. 2 doubles team. King is ranked No. 9 in singles. He won 14 of 17 matches in the fall.

“I honestly feel he is the most dangerous player in college tennis right now,” Thorne opined. “He has improved his big lefty serve as well as his transition game. He was successful against the best in the nation and has that confidence now.”

The Jackets won’t wait long to test themselves. Their first match will be one week from today, at home, against Old Dominion and former Jacket assistant coach Aljosa Piric.

Tech has work to do before then.

While awaiting paperwork to be sorted out that will hopefully make one newcomer eligible within the next month, the Jackets have several players who will be fresh faces in the spring.

This brings more intensity than the fall, including ACC action and then the NCAAs. Not surprisingly, Thorne wasted no time before finding another gear on Wednesday.

On occasions, he began individual drills saying something to the effect of, “We didn’t spend all that time in the fall working on . . . ” and then took off from there.

Footwork was a bit sloppy, some players were not building a good base before shots, and follow-throughs were too high.

It’ll come, and it’s not like starting from scratch. Serbian senior Dusan Miljevic is back with Spir and King.

Beyond that all faces will be new to the hope of Tech’s spring.

Junior Juan Melian Puigventos of Spain transferred from Georgia Southern, where he was conference player of the year last season, and freshmen Eduardo Segura Mandarino of Spain, Vikram Hundal of Alpharetta, Colin Edwards of Valrico, Fla., and Sebastian Lopez of Colombia are all vying to make their ACC debuts.

Most played fall matches, but there was a feeling of newness Wednesday anyway. Fall seems so yesterday.

“We’re coming off a good year, and just to get back at it with the guys,” King said. “It’s exciting to get back to work.”

Each Jacket has taken some time off since the autumn schedule ended, but that’s not really saying much. Rarely do these guys go more than a day or two without a racket in their hand. The structure of their work, however, is not likely to have matched what Thorne has in mind.

“I took a couple days to enjoy family and friends,” said Spir, who returned to his native Colombia for the holidays. “Never more than a couple days. It’s a year-round sport, and you have to stay in shape.”

The Jackets have a ways to go to even match last season, when they won the NCAA regional in Atlanta and reached the NCAA Championship round of 16. Spir and King made it to the national semifinals in doubles after entering as the No. 14 seed.

It’s not scratch, but the Jackets aren’t low enough yet to end up as high as they want. So the work has begun in earnest.

“When you take a long time off, you have to start with conditioning,” King said. “Then, it’s just a matter of getting the timing back.”

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