Jan. 10, 2013
By Jon Cooper
There’s no substitute for experience.
For the Georgia Tech men’s tennis team, this weekend’s Illini Open, being held in Fort Myers, Fla., promises to provide plenty of that.
What kind of experience, obviously, is to be determined, as the Yellow Jackets, whose eight-man roster includes three freshmen and three sophomores, will run a gauntlet of No. 12 Florida, coached by longtime Tech women’s tennis head coach Bryan Shelton, No. 16 Illinois and No. 40, NC State, of the ACC.
It’s a tough test for his young team, which begins the spring ranked 59th, but Georgia Tech Head Coach Kenny Thorne wouldn’t have it any other way. His team has a burr under its saddle regarding its preseason ranking and believes head-to-head is the best way to prove people wrong.
“Our schedule is tough. I wanted to get us against the toughest competition in the nation. That’s the way you should do it,” Thorne said. “We know we should be up there and we should be [ranked] higher than we are and we plan to be but the only way to get up there is play ’em. Play the teams, get used to that level of competition, which we did in the Fall.”
Thorne is optimistic coming off the Fall, as he unveils his squad, which features the No. 1 doubles team of senior Juan Spir and sophomore Vikram Hundal, who were sensation after being teamed during the Fall. Tech boasts solid Nos. 2 and 3 teams in sophomore Eduardo Segura, Spir’s partner at the Fall’s outset, and freshman Garrett Gordon and the team of senior Juan Melian and freshman Nathan Rakitt. The wild card will be freshman Colin Edwards, who was limited by an IT Band injury for most of the Fall, but is back healthy. He’ll likely team with fellow freshman Anish Sharma.
Thorne also is looking forward to seeing his trio of freshmen Sharma, Rakitt and Gordon get some action in singles before the team heads home to play its first-ever match at the brand new Ken Byers Tennis Complex, next Friday, against Old Dominion and Lipscomb.
“I’m excited about getting them more match play before we play Old Dominion,” said Thorne. “They’ll get three days of match play in down there before we head back over here and play Old Dominion, which I think is always good to do right before you start the season.”
The experience of playing tough match after tough match gained this weekend will be especially important considering just how unforgiving the team’s schedule will be after the opening Friday, which starts with Old Dominion at 1 p.m. and includes a nightcap with Lipscomb that night at 7 p.m.
After those two matches, the Yellow Jackets’ schedule only gets tougher, with matches against nine teams ranked in the top 50 in the country, with six of those teams in the top 25, and three of those in the nation’s top six. Four of the matches against the top-50 are on the road, with two visits to top-25 competition, including going to Charlottesville, Va., to meet No. 1 Virginia. The schedule also includes conference foes Clemson (No.60), Miami (No. 65), both on the road, and Wake Forest (No. 66), as well as intra-city rival Georgia State (No. 63). In fact, only three teams on the schedule (Mercer, William & Mary and Boston College) are unranked after opening day.
“We don’t really play too many gimme tournaments,” Thorne said. “We play the best competition and you have to rise up to that level. Our guys have. We can play at that level. We’ve just got to be able to do it consistently throughout the season.”
It starts with The Illini Open.
Thorne is looking forward to seeing how his players respond to the test, while catching up with Shelton, a former teammate and doubles partner, as well as a fellow All-American, and Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Famer, who is in his first full season in Gainesville.
“I saw him all Fall and he’s doing a great job down there,” Thorne said. “He’s gotten his guys playing like he usually does, as well as they can play. It’s great to be able to go down to Florida and play against his team because I know they’re going to act with class and he’s such a good coach that they’re going to do the right things. We know that our players are going to get better because of it. He’s great to be around and a good coach and it’ll be a good weekend to spend some time with him as well.”
While Thorne admits that there’s a bit of competitive rivalry between coaches, the level of respect they have for each other runs deeper. Proof of that is that the coaches, themselves, will serve as the umpires this weekend.
“That kind of shows you the coaches will take control of their players and we’ll make sure things go right,” he said. “But there’s natural coaching rivalries as well. Nobody likes to lose and all the coaches are as competitive as any of the players.
“I think schools have natural rivalries. I think coaches will have natural rivalries,” he added. “But when we have tournaments like this one, you get coaches that you respect and that you enjoy being around. You know you’re going to get a lot of match play and it’s going to be fair.”
Thorne expects this weekend to be a good measuring stick for his team and is hoping he likes what he sees, even though he knows at times it won’t necessarily be pretty.
“They’re gonna get beat up a little bit. That’s alright,” he said. “I’m not worried about it. I want them coming out competing and believing that they can play at the highest level. That’s going to help us the most going into the January matches.”