The Good Word | by Matt Winkeljohn
It is late for an unveiling, yet when the Georgia Tech men’s tennis team this weekend plays host to the MLK Tournament it will be the first chance to really see these Yellow Jackets whole.
The fall season was largely incomplete because injuries sidelined half the Tech roster, and over the break the team also added freshman Pablo Schelcher of Spain to the mix.
All nine Jackets are expected to see action at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex, where they’ll face No. 16 Illinois Saturday at 2 p.m., No. 15 Columbia Sunday at 2, and No. 12 Georgia Monday at 2. Admission is free, right across the street from Tech’s 4 p.m. men’s basketball game against Louisville at McCamish Pavilion.
Head coach Kenny Thorne has a good idea what to expect from a few players, and he’s seen enough to know that Cole Gromley is on the move after being somewhat late to the game himself.
The 6-foot-3, 167-pound freshman from Norcross/Johns Creek went 11-3 in the fall with quicks and a big, if occasionally ill-channeled forehand shot.
“The racket-head speed that he generates, and the power to get around and hit the forehand by his movement is the best on the team, and one of the better in college,” Thorne said. “He’s just got to get used to the pace of people hitting a bigger ball, and playing a little bit lower.”
Tech’s fall season wasn’t a complete wipeout, as Gromley and senior Andrew Li each went 11-3, sophomore Brandon Freestone 7-3 and senior Phillip Gresk 5-4.
Outside of a little doubles action for redshirt freshman Zummy Bauer, that was it.
Half the other guys on the roster were coming off surgeries, and two more were out with acute injuries. So, this will be a lift-the-curtain weekend for the Jackets.
“Oh, absolutely,” Thorne said. “Carlos Divar was out all fall with the hip [injury] . . . He’ll play the first day and we’ll monitor . . . We only had four guys healthy in the fall. Freshman [Joseph] Galdolfo had an ankle issue.
“Zummy played like a match or two coming back off a knee [surgery]. [Junior] Christopher Yun was out with a knee and then a wrist and didn’t play at all.”
Gromley hummed, which may qualify as a little bit of a surprise.
He kind of ho-hummed tennis growing up, picking up the game as part of a family routine, although his parents, Colin and Cynthia, and older brother C.J. were not super competitive beyond his father’s high school spin in the game.
Although he may be preternaturally talented, Gromley was not exactly obsessed with the game. He didn’t play an overly ambitious juniors schedule, didn’t leave his high school for a full-time tennis academy, nor do the home-school thing like many top tennis players.
He led Johns Creek High to the 2017 state championship, and won the singles title himself, and that was about the time he and his family realized that he might turn the game into a future. He started playing more serious juniors events the prior summer, drawing the attention of college coaches, and in the winter of his junior year he committed to Cornell.
“Probably up until then I just wanted to go to school normally and not play as much, just go to college, be a normal student,” he said. “But once I started getting better I thought I’d try and play in college.”
After a while, Gromley’s mindset evolved and he went from wanting to play in college to more than that, so he tracked down Thorne.
“I think it was March of my senior year that I realized I just really didn’t want to go there. I didn’t have a connection with the coach,” he said of the Cornell commit “We just never really connected, and the closer I got the more I thought it wouldn’t be the right fit . . .
“Since I was in Georgia, I knew people on the team and who had been on the team and I had met Kenny a few times. I knew Zummy and Chris. I trained with them at Life Time [in Peachtree Corners] for a few years, and I knew Brandon just from tournaments and Joseph, one of the other freshmen, was one of my best friends for a few years. I wanted to be close to home.”
Thorne was cautious.
“He was actually going to Cornell, and in tennis, when somebody verbally commits, you don’t touch them,” the coach said. “We weren’t even talking and then he approached me and told me he wasn’t going to
Cornell and he wanted to stay close to home.
“We knew he was talented in tennis and smart, too, but we’ve got a high level of work ethic that we’re asking guys to embrace, and to be honest in juniors I don’t think he worked that hard.”
In the process of changing that part of himself as a high school senior, Gromley convinced Thorne that he could fit at Tech on partial scholarship.
“He came here and absolutely turned it on in practice. He had a few hiccups in matches, and I think it was partly lack of belief. He didn’t know how good he was. He wasn’t believing in himself enough . . .” the coach explained.
“He went through the fall and got a ranking, and we haven’t had too many guys get a ranking. A ranking in the fall is, for him I think it was great. I usually say it doesn’t mean anything, but it showed him that he could do something.”
There’s work happening.
Thorne and assistant Jeremy Efferding are trying to slow Gromley down so that he doesn’t overrun balls and ‘jam’ himself.
“When I got here, I really didn’t attack my forehand. I just kind of hit it with the intention of putting it in the court,” Gromley said. “He’s made me work on hitting it a lot harder and . . . I hit the forehand hard and really spin it so it bounces kind of high off the court, and . . . I like to run side to side a lot because I’m really fast.”
It doesn’t hurt that from time to time Gromley and his teammates get to hit with and talk to former Yellow Jackets star Christopher Eubanks, a two-time ACC player of the year who recently earned a spot in the main draw of the Australian Open.
“It helps a lot to hit with someone who’s having success on the pro tour, but it’s hard to get used to the pace because he’s so much bigger because he’s 6-8,” he said. “He’s like a third coach who watches and gives out tips.”
Thorne will look for tips this weekend.
The MLK will be the last outing before the Jackets dive into the spring dual-match schedule, which of course is centered on ACC play. Each team will deploy as many doubles and singles players as they have available to match opponents each day.
When the dual schedule starts with Tech’s Wednesday match against The Citadel and Sunday against Furman, Thorne will know more thanks to this weekend.
“It’s one of the first years I really have no idea. I’ve seen four guys play. I think we have the talent to do well, and . . . They’ve been doing some good things in practice, and we’re as healthy as we’ve been in a while, knock on wood.”