April 7, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
The soft, under-publicized heart of college sports was beating Sunday afternoon at Georgia Tech, although you had to go behind the scenes to feel it.
On a glorious day, the scoreboard – where No. 9 Duke won 5-2 at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex – was worth ignoring. It’s been a tough season for the Yellow Jackets, and the final home match for seniors Juan Spir and Juan Melian fit into that folder.
Yet upon looking closely, with a special post-match pass, one could see beyond wins and losses and find snippets from the meanings of life. Yes, life.
Relationships move the heart needle harder than winning streaks, double faults, unforced errors, aces or match points. Spir and Melian have more of them for having been at Tech, the first a young man from Colombia and the second of Spain.
Spir worked a little magic on the court, yet afterward as coach Kenny Thorne feted the Juans with a short speech about each, a warmer magic washed everyone.
There were teary eyes.
This was especially true as Spir choked up in talking about his college experience.
“I feel that more than just playing matches and playing tennis and studying, you find yourself with so many people who are like your family,” he said. “It’s just been amazing. I cannot count with my hands all the friends that I have made.”
Thorne was brief and genuine.
“These guys mean so much to me. When you’re trying to bring excellence out of people, you’re going to butt heads and things like that,” the coach said afterward to Sting Daily. “It’s like a family, and a family is not always happy all the time. It’s tough.
“At the end, when you look back and say wow, we all had this goal and it was to achieve; you grow so close to so many of these guys, especially when they have a heart like [Spir].”
We visited with Melian a couple weeks ago, which you can see here (http://www.ramblinwreck.com/sports/m-tennis/spec-rel/030913aaa.html ). Today, the focus is on Spir, whose focus drew keen Sunday after the Jackets were smoked in doubles.
The Blue Devils (16-4) routed Tech in tandem play, including an 8-2 win at No. 1 by Henrique Cunha and Rafael Hemmeler over Spir and Eduardo Segura.
Cunha and Hemmeler are ranked No. 1 in the nation; Spir’s usual doubles partner, Virkam Hundal, may return from a knee injury within a couple weeks.
“I was thinking, ‘We can’t go out like this in the last home match,’” Thorne recalled after doubles.
Then, Spir’s heart kicked into gear.
Ranked No. 79 nationally in singles, he took on Duke’s Fred Saba, No. 25.
It was a blitzkrieg; Spir won 6-1, 6-4.
“To see him come back in singles, and go through that guy, I just wanted to throw off the coaching hat and put on the Dad hat and enjoy it,” Thorne said.
The coach was in the crowd a little later, in fact, as Spir spoke inside the Byers Complex to teammates, a few members of the women’s team, former teammates, supporters of the program, his parents – all the way from Colombia – and the parents of former teammates.
Seriously. Mull that over.
Spir may go in the books as the greatest doubles player in Tech history. His most prominent partner, Kevin King (they were 66-22 together, and ran to the NCAA semifinals in 2011), was not there Sunday.
He was off somewhere playing professionally. Yet King’s parents were there. Laura King, in fact, helped organize.
When Spir was a freshman at Tech, the parents of former teammate Ryan Smith took him in for Thanksgiving dinner. The Smiths were there Sunday.
“I’ve spent an entire summer in the Kings’ house,” Spir said later. “We even sometimes have been to Kevin’s place for dinner without Kevin there; they just invited me. I feel that is amazing. You look around, and you have a support system . . . it’s just nice.”
Spir will graduate this summer with a degree in international affairs, and then return to Colombia. King will head south, too, and, “There are a lot of [professional] Futures and Challenger tournaments in Colombia in the fall, and Kevin is going to come down and live with us for a little bit and we’re going to play the tournaments,” Juan said.
It’s been a long journey, much longer than the atypically quick recruitment of Spir.
“We saw him play down at the Orange Bowl [tournament his senior year in high school],” Thorne said. “A lot of people were saying he was going to go pro; he’s top 50 in the world in juniors. We tried to talk, but didn’t get too far.”
Six months or so later, Spir contacted the Tech coach.
“I had played a couple professional tournaments,” he said. “I got a shoulder injury, and that made me look at college even more seriously. I said, ‘Hey, if my body doesn’t respond three or four years into the pro circuit, how am I going to make a living?’ “
Thorne wasted no time.
“He sent some e-mails out saying he was interesting. We get tons of e-mails . . . I was on it quick. It took me all of about five seconds to get on the phone and call him.
“Miami and Pepperdine were interested, and I definitely didn’t want him to get a chance to go out and see Malibu so I told him, ‘We have this scholarship, and we need to get this worked out right away.’ “
Spir didn’t waste time disposing of Duke’s Saba on Sunday to end his Tech home career.
“[After doubles], I was like, ‘OK, it’s all me now,’ and I just came out and played really well,” he said. It was not until the last point, and I was serving for the match. It kind of hit me; ‘This is probably the last point I am going to play here.’
“I missed my first serve, and on my second I went wide to his forehand, came in [to the net] and finished with a volley as he was not able to get there. It was cool. That is my signature game style. Serve, come in and volley. It was nice.”
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