Jan. 9, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It may not feel like Spring on Saturday afternoon — and certainly won’t on Saturday evening — but Spring will be in the air inside the Ken Byers Tennis Complex, as Georgia Tech men’s tennis opens its 2015 Spring season.
They’ll do double-duty, playing a doubleheader, first against Georgia Southern, beginning at noon, then at 5:30 p.m. against Mercer.
Playing two matches in one day is one heck of a way to start the dual season, but GT head coach Kenny Thorne believes there are plenty of benefits to be gained.
“Match play is key to getting going in the season,” said Thorne, who begins his 17th spring season at the helm. “We have one week of practice and then we play so we need to play as much as we possibly can before we get into conference play. Doubleheaders allow us to get back-to-back. The first one everybody’s excited about and emotions are high and then we just want them to settle into competition. As quickly as we can do that we want to do that. ”
Junior Nathan Rakitt, one of the team’s three upperclassmen (with senior Eduardo Segura and redshirt-junior and captain Casey Kay), noted that the difference in approach toward the twin-bill can be drawn along age lines.
“It’s pretty funny, the older guys kind of complain about doubleheaders. They say, ‘Oh man, we have two matches in one day,’” he said, with a laugh. “But the younger guys are like, ‘That’s what we did EVERY day in juniors. Sometimes we’d play THREE matches in one day.’ So the younger guys are looking at it like ‘What the heck is your problem?’”
Rakitt noted that upperclassmen don’t have any trouble focusing once that second match begins.
“Once you step on the court and once you get warmed up for the first match, your No. 1 goal is to get the doubles point,” he said. “Once that’s finished, then you focus on the singles and then you come off the court, have a couple-of-hours break and you go out and you do it all over.
“It’s definitely not easy. The second match is a really good mental test,” he added. “I don’t think the freshmen realize how much more physical dual matches are than their junior days, but it’s definitely exciting because the first match everyone’s going to come out with tons of adrenaline and fatigue really isn’t going to be a problem, then the second match, we’re playing a team that’s focused on this match their whole off-season, their whole preseason, their whole fall. They’re ready to prove themselves. They’re going to come out firing and we’re going to come out and we may be feeling something. I think we all look at it as a challenge and we’re really excited for it.”
Freshmen comprise nearly 50 percent of the roster — four of the nine players on the roster are first-year players — so they will have a say in the 2015 spring season. So many freshmen mean a lot of enthusiasm and energy, which will compensate for the lack of college experience. Thorne feels that so much emotion could be something of a mixed blessing.
“They’re going to be excited. The emotions are going to be high. We need to get down to where we don’t let emotions take over and we do our fundamentals well,” he said. “They add some excitement, too. I think the upperclassmen can draw from some of the energy they’re going to bring and hopefully they can mentor them into the tough moments better.”
Rakitt, who expects to partner with one of those freshmen, Chris Eubanks, is excited to see how the freshmen do, especially seeing how high they have set the bar for themselves.
“In their minds they’ve been ready since they stepped on campus. They wanted to skip the whole fall season and get to the dual-match season,” said Rakitt. “They’re all really, really, REALLY excited.
“They’ve gotten to know each other incredibly well and they’ve really built on that, kind of pushing each other in practice at times,” he added. “Chris Eubanks has just an incredible mind; he’s practiced with some of the top guys in the world, so he knows exactly what the level is that he needs to be at. [Michael Kay]’s done an incredible job as well. We’re really looking forward to big things from them. Daniel [Yun] and Elijah [Melendez] have come a long, long way since the beginning of the fall and I know that they’re excited to push the lineup. So we know that there’s always somebody ready to take our spots if we don’t perform.”
Who will perform with whom could be a game-time decision. Rakitt missed some practice time this week, but expects to be ready for Southern, while Casey Kay is working his way back from a hip injury, which cost him the entire fall, and may see some doubles action.
Even though doubles pairings are potentially subject to change the fall brought together some strong teams. Segura and Carlos Benito were superb during the fall, winning four of their last five matches, Rakitt and Eubanks went 9-4, including an 8-1 start, Cole Fiegel and Michael Kay did some good things, going 4-3, as did the all-freshman pairing of Elijah Melendez and Daniel Yun, who went 5-4 but won four of their final six matches.
“We’re trying to teach a doubles system to where we can feed people into it,” Thorne said. “We have a lot of guys here who know how to play doubles so I feel like we can plug a lot of different guys in. All nine guys know how to play doubles here. All nine have had some good success in doubles. That helps us.”
Being at home also will help.
Saturday’s matches, the following week’s MLK Invitational against Georgia, Oklahoma and Columbia, and all but one non-conference match — Feb. 15 Tech travels to Auburn — will be at the Byers Complex, which is a big deal.
“Home-court advantage is huge in tennis,” said Thorne. “You’re talking about a court surface that can change drastically from school to school. One court can be fast and they’re all hard courts but they can have more sand in them, which can slow them down. You can have different speeds, which can vary quite a bit. The bounce of the ball can vary so playing at home matters. Obviously, there is the hometown crowd and just the comfort factor, but the speed of the court makes a difference.”
With Saturday’s high temperature expected be around 40 degrees, both matches will be played indoors. Thorne expects to play indoors throughout January and for much of February.
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