July 27, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There will be a lot riding on Christopher Eubanks when he takes the court on Tuesday for his opening match at the BB&T Atlanta Open, part of College Night festivities at Atlantic Station. He will team with Atlanta’s Donald Young to face Mate Pavic of Croatia and Michael Venus of New Zealand in the first round of the doubles draw.
Wednesday, the Yellow Jackets sophomore and Atlanta native is playing against a veteran professional in 36-year-old Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, who ranked as high as No. 8 in the world in 2006, for his opening-round singles match.
Eubanks also is the local hero and main drawing card upon whom the organizers have “banked” for that night’s College Night promotion (Tournament play actually begins at noon on Tuesday and runs throughout the day. College students can get special two-for-one tickets by showing a college ID.). Tournament Director and Chief Development Officer Eddie Gonzalez said as much at the tournament’s introductory ceremony back in mid-June.
“Tuesday night is `College Night,'” Gonzalez said. “I tell people that the beauty of tennis is that Georgia Tech’s basketball team could never play against the Hawks for real,” Gonzalez said. “But Chris Eubanks’ dream is going to come true. He’ll get to play on stadium court at night on Tuesday night as part of our College Night, for real against an ATP Tour player. So we’re very excited about Tuesday night with Chris Eubanks.”
Sounds like a lot of pressure, but don’t expect the 19-year-old to succumb to it. He’s shown maturity beyond his years and has made himself right at home in the spotlight. He played at No. 1 for the Jackets as a freshman, beating four top-40 players on the way to earning All-ACC honors and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. He can’t wait to get on the court and take a step forward against the pros, especially in front of the home folks.
“I’m extremely excited. This is something I’ve been wanting for a while,” said Eubanks. “Part of the reason I chose Georgia Tech is not too many schools can offer a professional tournament sitting right in your back yard. To actually be able to play is far beyond my wildest dreams. I really felt like I’ve prepared a lot and am trying to get as prepared as I can.”
A big part of that preparation was his recent trip to Europe with mentor and ATP pro Donald Young, the 55th-ranked player in the world. While there he got to experience Wimbledon and met and even volleyed with some of the world’s best tennis players. He believes that experience will pay off at the BB&T.
“Going over there, seeing some of the top guys, practicing alongside of them, getting to see them up close kind of shows me what I can improve on and what I can do to become better,” he said. “I know the closer it gets the jitters are going to start flying but I’m hoping when I get out there I can play the best I can. Whatever that result is, if I go out there and play as well as I know I can, even if it doesn’t go my way, I can’t ask for more.”
The 2015 BB&T will be Eubanks’ third appearance in the tournament — he lost to Lukas Dlouhy, who coincidentally, also hails from the Czech Republic, 6-7 (3), 0-6 in 2012 and to Jeff Dadamo, 2-6, 3-6, in 2013 — but the first time in which he did not have to play through qualifiers to get in. Avoiding that rugged road that derailed teammate Michael Kay, who reached the four-man qualifiers but fell, 7-5, 6-3, to Trent Bryde, who ended up getting in, could pay dividends for Eubanks.
“He’ll be fresher and not be as tired as if he had to qualify,” said Young, who met Eubanks, then 14, when he and his family moved from Chicago and has become like a big brother to him.
Young believes that playing on his home turf and in front of what is expected to be a fired-up crowd could be advantageous to his “little brother.
“It’s a totally different animal playing your first main draw Tour event. I’ve been there,” said Young, who is in the other side of the bracket from Eubanks (he opens with Luxembourg’s Gilles Müller, the seventh seed, No. 52 player in the world). “But he’s going to have a lot of support and it’s going to be at home. “So it’s going to be a bit easier because he likes a lot of people around and a lot of emotional support and a lot of people cheering for him. It’s almost like a college environment. So he’s going to thrive. I think he’s going to play well.”
Eubanks welcomes the support against the much more experienced Stepanek. Currently ranked at No. 369 after ending 2014 at 68, Stepanek, an 18-year pro, has been playing professionally for almost as long as Eubanks has been alive, and has reached the round of 16 at three of the four Majors — the 2008 French Open, 2009 Wimbledon and US Open — and, as recently as 2014, advanced to the round of 32 at the French.
As tough as Stepanek will be, an even bigger hurdle looms for Eubanks should he advance, in John Isner. Isner is currently ranked No. 18 in the world, is the two-time defending BB&T champion and enters the tournament as the No. 1 seed for the fourth straight year. As if that’s not enough, throw in that Isner is 6-10 — actually three inches taller than Eubanks — and will have plenty of fan support of his own, as he’s a former Georgia Bulldog.
But first things first, and that’s Stepanek. Eubanks is confident and believes he has definite advantages.
“They say Atlanta has a different kind of heat than what a lot of people are used to. I feel like that will definitely help,” he said. “Playing big match after big match after big match in college will hopefully give me a little bit of momentum to ride out to try to do as best as I can. I think there’s a combination of things that kind of play in my favor, but, then again, I’m going to be going up against somebody probably top 100 in the world. They’ve faced it all. So I’m just hoping to go out there and play as well as I’m capable of playing and living with that result.”