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Tennis Teams Eye National Titles

Jan. 29, 2010

by Matt Winkeljohn, Managing Editor

ATLANTA – It is fascinating that men’s tennis coach Kenny Thorne and women’s coach Bryan Shelton go so far back, pre-dating even their shared careers as Georgia Tech teammates in the mid- to late-1980s all the way to when they were 14.

It seems a good time to take a look at the shared — yet separate — experiences awaiting Tech’s men’s and women’s teams this weekend. They call it the “Kickoff” in college tennis, and there’s a new format.

The ladies stay home, the gentlemen will travel to Gainesville, Fla.

Where in seasons past 16 top womens teams would gather, usually at the University of Wisconsin, to play off the ITA National Indoor Championships, the first- and second rounds instead will be held this weekend at 15 campus sites. Four teams per site with winners advancing to the “Sweet 16” in a couple weeks at Wisconsin, which qualifies automatically as host tothe event.

Ditto on the mens side, where Virginia is the automatic qualifier/host.

The numbers are flipped; 61 teams have a chance to play for the national title rather than 16. So the mens NCAA basketball tournament is not the only one thinking of expanding; tennis has done it.

Tech is playing host to women’s action, as the No. 10 Jackets will play No. 29 Arizona State Saturday at 2:30, preceded by Kentucky vs. Alabama. The No. 43 men play No. 54 Penn State Saturday at Florida, where the Gators will play Furman in the other Saturday match.

Host sites were awarded to teams that finished in the top 15 last season (the Tech women finished No. 13).

“I like it,” Thorne said. “It’s early in the season and it gives (61) teams a chance to win a national championship, and puts college tennis in 16 different places.”

Happy to host, Shelton is selfish. He’d like to see Tech host a bigger tournament, and believes that if all goes as planned, and the Institute expands and upgrades tennis facilities as athletics director Dan Radakovich suggested this week in his state of the athletics department address, that could happen.

Tech currently has but three indoor courts.

“[Expansion] is on the docket,” Shelton said. “We’re one of a couple sports looking within the next year and a half at improvements to our facility. We’d like to have six indoor courts to go along with 12 outdoor. We’ve already done a lot of the fund raising. We’re moving in the right direction. We’d love to be able to host major events. Hopefully with improvements we will.”

Thorne expects Guillermo Gomez, who missed three matches with a sprained ankle to be at close to 100 percent. In addition to undergoing sports hernia surgery in November, he’s battling back from a badly sprained ankle that cost him three matches earlier this month. The Jackets are still without sophomore Kevin King, who’s recovering from a shoulder injury.

Shelton’s women are at full strength, although 2008 national outdoors champion Amanda McDowell has played at No. 4 singles so far while trying to round back into form after a treacherous back injury in the fall.

“She has yet to take the court in doubles,” Shelton said. “I think she’s in a very good place, gaining confidence and feeling stronger.”

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