By Jon Cooper
The Southern Intercollegiate Championships are billed as “the oldest fall collegiate tennis event in America.” (It began in 1968 and last year featured 160 of the nation’s top players and 26 participating schools).
There’s no better place for the youthful Georgia Tech tennis team to cut its teeth. We’re talking young here.
The 2012 Jackets’ roster features a pair of seniors, Juan Spir and Juan Melian and six underclassmen, three of those incoming freshman. But Head Coach Kenny Thorne is optimistic as he leads his Jackets to the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on the campus of the University of Georgia. The tournament begins on Friday and runs through Monday.
Not even an earlier starting date, which means not as much practice time, can dampen his spirits.
“I think it is a good indicator,” Thorne said. “We’ll hop straight into first matches and we’ll have a lot of ACC teams there, so it will be our first real test of how the freshmen are going to stack up. We’re going to see where we’re at and it will give us direction for practices going in the next few weeks.”
That enthusiasm and optimism has spread to the team.
“This tournament is really important for all of us,” said Spir. “It’s the first tournament of the fall, basically the first tournament of the year. We are all very excited about it. It’s a good way to get started. There’s a lot of good competition so we always take it very seriously. We have high expectations for it.”
Spir is battle-tested, having chalked up a 59-40 career record in singles, including a 22-13 season in 2010-11. A two-time All-ACC selection, the native of Medellin, Colombia, did some of his best work in concert with Kevin King, now playing professionally. The duo chalked up a 75-34 record (a .688 winning percentage), including a dynamic 35-11 season in ’10-11, when the duo finished ninth in the nation and reached the semifinals of the NCAA Doubles Championships. Last season, they were fourth in the nation. Spir is looking forward to trying his hand with new doubles partner, sophomore Eduardo Segura.
“It’s, obviously, going to be a bit different. I played with Kevin for two and a half years but I’ve been practicing a lot with Eddie these couple of weeks and we feel very comfortable together,” Spir said. “In any case, if I get to play with any of the other guys on the team we know each other and we are very good friends. So it’s just about getting some matches in and I’m sure we’re going to be fine when the season starts in January.”
The other senior is Juan Melian, who is in his second season on the Flats. Thorne expects big things from Melian, who was 18-12 in singles in his first season at Tech, after transferring from Georgia Southern. Thorne expects the native of Las Palmas, Spain, to regain the form he displayed at Southern, where he was 39-10, was two-time all-SoCon and the 2011 Southern Conference Player of the Year.
“It’s always tough to come in as a transfer and your first year might be a little bit difficult,” said Thorne. “He’s a big, strong player and I think he can handle any position on the team.”
Expectations are high for the sophomore class as well. That trio includes Valrico, Fla.-born Colin Edwards, who is battling back from an injury he suffered during the summer, Alpharetta native Vikram Hundal and Segura, a native of Madrid, Spain, who had a big summer, beating some quality competition in his home country.
“Each one of them is improving,” said Thorne. “We’ll see throughout the fall how it goes.”
“This is an amazing opportunity for all three,” said Thorne. “I don’t put too many expectations out there. I’ll see where they’re at.”
A key to this team will be the senior leadership displayed by the Juans. Spir is ready to take on that responsibility.
“It’s real important. We have a very young team,” said Spir. “We just have to lead by example and show how things are done and set a good base for them to do very well the next couple of years. With every team there has to be leaders. Hopefully we can fill in those shoes very well.”
Another key will be the team’s resilience and patience. Thorne pointed out that this is a different kind of team from Jackets teams of the past.
“Mainly, we’ve got a team that’s going to need to fight,” he said. “We might not have as big hitters as we’ve had in the past and we’re going to kind of define ourselves by how hard we work and how tough we fight. That’s going to be a little bit more of a key for us.
“It’s a preview of the spring. We don’t play too many easy matches,” he added. “Sink or swim, let’s get going. You’re going to have a lot of good opportunities to really get up and beat the best competition and if you’re a little bit off, you’re going to get beat up and you’re going to have to dust yourself off and get going again.”