Sept. 12, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Head coach Kenny Thorne kicks off his 16th season this weekend in Athens without a senior player on his roster.
No head coach, regardless of the sport, really knows what to expect in the first week of his team’s competition.
That’s especially true in an individual sport like Tennis. The picture gets murkier when going in without the benefit of having practiced. Throw in the lack of a senior, five of the team’s top six singles players and its top two doubles teams from last season, and, just for fun, put the event on the home court of your arch-rival.
That’s what Georgia Tech’s five representatives face when they take the court this weekend at the Southern Intercollegiate Championships, the oldest collegiate tennis tournament in the country, being held at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens. The event will include players from 28 of the top schools around the country.
The Jackets, who enter the season without a senior, will use the event to take a look at the future, as four of their players are underclassmen — freshmen Carlos Benito of Madrid, Spain, and Cole Fiegel of Alachua, Fla., sophomore Anish Sharma (8-21 in singles, 4-5 in doubles), and redshirt sophomore Casey Kay, both from Alpharetta. The only upperclassman playing this weekend is junior Colin Edwards of Valrico, Fla., who was 3-11 last season in singles, 10-15 in doubles, coming back from injuries that limited him as a freshman.
“It’s like going into the first football game, we’ve got our first official practice tomorrow at Georgia,” said head coach Kenny Thorne. “We’ve been able to do individual lessons with the guys. So how much emphasis you can put on a result at this stage is a little bit difficult.”
While Thorne isn’t taking results as be-all, end-all, he has high expectations for his players’ competitiveness.
“We’re not recruiting anybody that takes losing lightly,” he said, with a laugh. “We want to step on the court ready to go and you’re offended if someone beats you. We haven’t had the chance to really jell as a team and come together with team practices but there is always individual pride on the line.”
Perhaps the most intriguing storyline is that of Kay, who transferred to Tech after playing last season at Georgia. He went 8-9 in singles, 5-6 in doubles.
Thorne believes the 5-11, 165-pounder, who reached No. 1 status in the South for three straight years, and won a Spring Southern Closed Doubles title with Yellow Jackets teammate Nathan Rakitt, is excited to go back to Athens, but dispelled the idea of any lingering hostility.
“It’ll be a little bit interesting for him but at the same time, Casey makes friends everywhere,” said Thorne. “He’s one of those guys that everybody likes. He left on good terms, he’s absolutely well-liked from their team, he’s well-liked on our team. I’m just excited to be getting him in the tournament. He needs to play more matches. The match play is what I’m looking at.”
A similar eye will be cast upon Fiegel, who lost one match in four years of district play at Gainesville High School, and Benito, who has played for Spain’s Junior National Teams at the under-14 (which he led to a world championship), U-16 and U-18 levels.
“Carlos and Cole playing in their first college tournament should be exciting,” said Thorne. “Hopefully they can go out there and establish themselves. They’re both big guys (both stand 6-2), have big games and have a good opportunity to do well.”
They’ll each take the court as part of a doubles pairing, Benito teaming with Kay and Fiegel teaming with Edwards.
“One of the first things you look for in the first tournament is try to see how some double teams jell, see if you can get a couple of teams that look like they could be possible teams,” said Thorne. “We teach doubles that you should be flexible, be able to play with different people but once you get in the matches you kind of see if the personalities jell and the games styles jell. Hopefully you get a starting point for that.”
The Southern Intercollegiate will be a starting point for the group as it seeks to find an identity and a leader. Thorne is eager to see who will step up to fill the leadership void opened up by the graduation of Juan Spir, the most decorated doubles player in school history, and Juan Melian. The duo played at Nos. 1 and 2 all last season. Junior Vikram Hundal, who played at No. 3 until he got hurt and teamed with Spir at No. 1 doubles, also will not be playing this weekend.
That leaves the youngsters to step up.
“They have to,” said Thorne, with a laugh. “We have no choice. They have to step up. An underclassman has to get up there and take that leadership role. It’s always tough for an underclassman. I think you develop every year as a better and better leader but we’ve got a few guys that are stepping up and doing a good job with it. It might be your best player, it might not. I don’t think it always has to be the best player on the team.
“I love the process of finding leaders, mentoring leaders and getting guys to realize their roles are changing and they’ve got to be the guy that people are looking up to,” he added. “That will happen. With no seniors that will be a little bit difficult, but we’ve had senior leaders at different times that maybe aren’t the best leaders. So we’re looking for people to step up regardless of what year they are. We’ll see who emerges as the actual team captain.”
This weekend also will give the team some familiarity with the level of competition ahead and even the court surface for this year’s NCAA Tournament, something Georgia Tech has reached 10 times in Thorne’s 15 years at the helm but not in the last two years — Tech has had singles and doubles representatives in both of those years from Spir and Kevin King.
“It’s good for the guys to get on these courts at UGA because they’re hosting the NCAAs,” Thorne said. “So that’s a good opportunity. We’re looking for all five guys to compete hard and be excited about the key points in matches.”