Jan. 16, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
The concept of easing into the “spring” tennis season has waned at Georgia Tech, where men’s coach Kenny Thorne and the Yellow Jackets this weekend will play host to the No. 2, No. 8 and No. 16-ranked squads in the nation. Five of the nation’s top 25 players will take the courts in the MLK Jr. Invitational.
Thorne is absolutely fine with the Jackets’ pending step up from season-opening wins over Georgia Southern (6-1) and Mercer (7-0) , especially since he’ll have his entire roster available at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.
Tech will play No. 2 Oklahoma Saturday at 2 p.m., No. 16 Columbia Sunday at 2 p.m. and No. 8 Georgia Monday at 2 p.m.
“We want the competition,” said Thorne, whose squad is No. 75 in the latest ITA national rankings. “The competition is tougher, but it’s not like we have to play that much better; we just have to play longer . . . there are not the mental breaks.”
While this tournament will pit teams against each other, the matches will not be scored in a team format. The round-robin is meant to determine individual and doubles champions over three days.
There will be plenty of talent on The Flats.
Oklahoma and Georgia each have four players ranked among the top 125 by the ITA, Columbia has two and the Jackets have one – junior Nathan Rakitt (49).
The Sooners are led by Axel Alverez Llamas (No. 14) and Andrew Harris (20). The Dogs are paced by Austin Smith (11) and Nathan Pasha (15) while Columbia features Winston Lin (22).
Rakitt didn’t play last weekend while mending a concussion. Simultaneously, redshirt junior Casey Kay – who transferred to Tech from Georgia a few years ago – made his 2014-15 debut after going out last spring with a hip injury that required surgery.
The elder Kay (brother Michael is a freshman for the Jackets) played doubles last weekend, and Saturday will break back into singles.
“Casey is going to be playing some matches. We’ll see how many,” Thorne said. “It’s just getting the strength back. He’s playing doubles fine. It’s just a matter of getting his head in, and getting his movement down. He hasn’t played a [singles] match in almost a year.”
Rakitt lost his first three singles matches last fall, and won his last six. He’s 3-1 against nationally-ranked opponents, including a loss to Georgia’s Ben Wagland (50), and wins against the Bulldogs’ Nick Wood (No. 101 now, No. 89 when they played) and Oklahoma’s Harris (20 now, No. 40 when they played).
Tech has been to Athens three times already this school year, albeit in different formats that did not always pit Jackets vs. Bulldogs, and will square off head-to-head against the No. 8 Bulldogs in a Feb. 6 dual at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.
The Jackets are getting comfy while playing their first nine spring matches, and 12 of the first 13, at home.
This also will be a homecoming for others. The Bulldogs have three players, including Pasha, from metro Atlanta, and Oklahoma is coached by UGA graduates John Roddick and Bo Hodge – an Athens native.
“They like coming back to Georgia,” Thorne said. “And it’s a no-brainer for Georgia to drive an hour. [Tech assistant coach] Derek [Schwandt] did a great job of getting out there and getting everybody to come.
“This is great for our guys. You talk about playing four quarters in football, and this is the same. You have your game plans, make your adjustments, and you don’t have to play better . . . you just have to play longer.”