By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
The prospect of 50 percent of your starting lineup being composed of freshmen can be a terrifying one for a coach.
Georgia Tech men’s tennis head coach Kenny Thorne knows. Jackets freshmen Andres Martin, Marcus McDaniel and Keshav Chopra compose three of his six starting singles players and one of his doubles teams and half of another.
Of course, Thorne also knows how talented the trio is and can empathize with the terrifying prospect facing opposing head coaches that will have to go up against his trio of first-years. That list will include University of Oregon’s Nils Schyllander and, he hopes, Texas A&M’s Steve Denton or South Alabama’s Nick Brochu, the head coaches of the schools in the Yellow Jackets’ bracket in the opening weekend of ITA Kickoff Weekend, being held in College Station, Texas. The Jackets face the Ducks Saturday at 11 a.m. ET. and would face either USA or A&M on Sunday.
“We’re excited,” said Thorne. “I would say this is probably one of the more talented teams that we’ve had but probably one of the youngest teams overall, based on where the young people have been playing in the lineup. We’re really excited heading into the Kickoff Weekend this weekend.”
The trio has not only handled being thrown into the starting mix but have thrived in it.
McDaniel, who grew up in Vacaville, Calif., comes into the Kickoff with a team high 13 wins vs. six losses, and is 9-4 in doubles — 6-1 since being paired with sophomore Pablo Schelcher. The duo has won five straight matches and was named doubles MVPs of last weekend’s MLK Invitational held at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.
“Marcus has come through and played some really good tennis in a lot of different tournaments throughout the fall,” said Thorne. “He’s a competitor. He enjoys being out there. He enjoys the big matches. He’s done really well for us.”
Martin, from Flowery Branch, is 11-7 in singles and 5-5 in doubles, but has been on a roll in doubles since being paired with Chopra. The duo is 4-0 in their last five matches and led in the match that was unfinished against Georgia Southern. In singles, Martin has earned the reputation of “giant killer,” having taken out four nationally-ranked players, the latest being No. 11 Alex Brown of Illinois last Saturday.
“He loves the moment,” said Thorne. “He’s played in Wimbledon Juniors, U.S. Open Juniors and has played a lot of big events. Anytime he steps on the court he expects to win. He’s playing some of the best competition already in the nation and he’s genuinely upset if he doesn’t win the match. He expects that he should win every single match that he plays. That’s good. He’s going to continue to mature and understand that everybody at this level is a good player. So it’s nice to know that when you put him out there that he’s ready to play and ready to win.”
Chopra is 8-7 in singles, and won his singles draw at the Georgia Tech Invitational this fall. He’s also 6-5 in doubles this season, and in December paired with McDaniel to win the USTA National Junior Indoor Championships. He is 5-1, with one unfinished, since teaming with Martin, with whom he’d actually played in juniors. Thorne likes the Marietta product’s aggressiveness and all-around game and loves his mental side.
“‘K’ is mentally tough,” Thorne said. “He is one of those guys that everybody knows, he’s not going to go away. It doesn’t matter what the score is. He believes that he can win all the way to the last point. He brings a great work ethic to the program and just wants to get better every day. He and Andres in doubles have really gelled. They’ve played better and better as the season’s gone along.”
With the competition they’ll see in this event and upcoming matches against the likes of No. 15 South Carolina, No. 16 Tennessee and No. 19 Georgia, in addition to the ACC with powers like defending conference champion Wake Forest, the freshmen and this young team certainly will be tested.
“It’s always tough as freshmen coming in. You’re playing against guys five, six years older, with a lot more team experience. Then all of a sudden you come into a team atmosphere. It’s not common in tennis,” said Thorne. “But these guys are serious about the game of tennis. They love it. We’re having to ask them to get off the court instead of get on the court. That’s what coaches want.”
“They’re going to take some hits. It’s going to be a learning experience in the process,” he added. “But what we ask is — and this entire team is doing it — let’s learn from one match to another. Let’s get a little better, let’s go back and improve something from our last match and let’s seriously work on it. Let’s not just put in the usual of, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll go back to practice.’ Let’s literally get better at what we didn’t do well. These guys are willing to do that.”
Thorne is quick to point out that there is a fourth member of the recruiting class, Brandon McKinney, who likely will redshirt this season but is looming on the horizon.
“He’s a talented player, got a big game on both sides, big serve, he’s got a lot of tools to work with,” said Thorne. “He’s improved a lot getting to play with these guys every day. Right now we’re looking at redshirting him. He will hopefully start really strong in the fall.”
Being around the team and being willing to listen and learn has been beneficial for all four freshmen. Team captain Carlos Divar has been especially active in the youngsters’ development. Divar has been recovering from a second hip surgery — he returned to action going 2-0 in doubles at MLK teaming with fellow senior Chris Yun and hopes to be back playing singles soon — has taken the youngsters under his wing.
“The reason why I’m involved with the freshmen and I try to help them is because I see them work every day and their work ethic is perfect,” said Divar. “They love tennis so much. They spend so many hours on the tennis court. That just makes me want to help them because they deserve any type of help that I can provide them. It’s so much fun how they are so hungry, how they want to practice and play and win and get better and improve. They’re always wide open for what I have to say. They are awesome players but they might need the experience that I have gained in college, since I am a senior. It’s so much fun working right next to them and trying to help them with whatever I can.”
“I think they have huge potential,” he added. “They might not even be aware of how good they can be at tennis. It’s very impressive how the coaches got such a good recruiting class. Four freshmen coming in, they’re all really good at tennis but at the same time they are very humble, they work very hard. I like everything about them, as a player and as a person.”
Thorne always had a good feeling about the entire quartet.
“When we were recruiting them, honestly, we thought they were really, really good Georgia Tech fits,” he said. “There are some people in juniors, you look at them and you’re like, ‘Is this going to translate or not?’ We knew their games translated. But then it’s mentally just settling in and being able to feel like you belong there and that type of thing. They’ve done a great job with that.”
“It’s not just on the court,” he added. “They did a great job their first semester of school, which is tough at Georgia Tech. Off the court, in the classroom and we’ve done some community things that they were more than happy to help out with. Credit to their parents. Their parents have done a great job.”
Things get real on Saturday. Thorne is excited to see how the team responds.
“We’re getting better every day and I know that’s always been a goal but I really feel that,” he said. “Every practice, every match — whether we win the match or lose — I feel like we’re getting better. So you’re building on something and that’s always what you want as a coach.”