Sept. 26, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Chris Eubanks was the biggest thing ever to hit Georgia Tech tennis before he ever got on the court at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex. Being 6-7 did that for him.
Eubanks could become one of the biggest things in Georgia Tech Men’s Tennis before he graduates in four years. A big game, a desire to get better and a tireless work ethic has, only weeks into his collegiate career, could do that for him.
Junior Nathan Rakitt believes it’s more will, not could.
“He’s undoubtedly going to take over college tennis, I have no doubt,” said Rakitt, who was Eubanks’ practice partner pretty much all summer.
Eubanks is one of four Yellow Jackets freshmen — along with Michael Kay, Elijah Melendez and Daniel Yun — that will compete in this weekend’s Georgia Tech Invitational, taking place at the Byers Complex. The tournament features 48 players from nine different schools. Action begins all three days at 9 a.m. with doubles competition. Admission is free.
The Atlanta native and former Westlake High School star has already showed flashed of the kind of brilliance that helped him rank as high as 14th in juniors.
During the summer he reached the quarterfinals of the ITA Summer Championship, upending third seed Sam Shropshire of Northwestern on the way. He also teamed with Rakitt and they reached the quarterfinals. Last week, at the Southern Intercollegiate Championships, he went 2-1 in singles, losing only to Oklahoma’s Axel Alvarez Llamas, the nation’s third ranked player, while in doubles, he and Rakitt advanced to the finals.
Georgia Tech Head Coach Kenny Thorne likes what he’s seen in Eubanks’ game and gives credit to ATP player Donald Young, Eubanks’ longtime friend and mentor.
“He’s got a lot of talent,” said Thorne. “His game style is actually similar to a lot of guys on the pro tour, big serve, big forehand. Playing with Donald Young, he was a junior that had a big serve but it was coming back. So he wasn’t used to getting a nice, easy sitter for a return of serve. He was used to picking the ball off his feet and that created some good hands for his game.”
Young, the 50th-ranked player in the world and seven years Eubanks’ elder, took Eubanks with him on tour for almost a year and practiced daily with him. But he has served as Eubanks’ mentor for a lot longer than that.
Eubanks, who first picked up a racket at age two — he has a video on his phone of his dad feeding him balls to hit — and first played in a tournament at age 6, met Young at age nine, when Young’s family moved to Chicago. The boys became fast friends, often going to the nearby tennis facility and playing. By the time Eubanks was 13, he was a full-on protégé of Young.
“Things started off a little bit rough and they progressively got better,” Eubanks recalled. “I got used to seeing that quality of player and that quality of ball and my game shot up from there. When I traveled with him I got to see some of the top players in the world practice right next to him. It was just amazing. When I came back, junior tennis was no competition. It opened my eyes that there’s a totally different level that you have to aspire to be able to play at. “
With Young back on the Tour, Eubanks is excited to have Thorne as his coach. He calls Tech’s coach a big reason why he chose to attend Georgia Tech, which had been on his GPS but not on his radar until his visit.
“I’d follow Kenny to the Moon if he was coaching there,” said Eubanks. “Growing up in Atlanta I really didn’t think that much of Georgia Tech. It was just this school that’s downtown. But when I actually took a visit and talked to Kenny and [Asst. Coach] Derek [Schwandt] and saw the new facility, it felt right.
“I said, `You get to live downtown, have a brand-new facility, have a professional tournament out here every summer, get to go down there, hit with some of the guys, which I did this summer, as well,'” he continued. “To be in downtown Atlanta and working with, arguably, the best coach in college tennis, it was a no-brainer for me.”
Thorne and Eubanks have been working hard to fill out Eubanks’ 6-7 frame and working on aspects of his game that will better take advantage of his height, and reach.
“We’re trying to get his strength up and that’s going to be key for his first year,” said Thorne. “He’s in the weight room a ton and he’s doing a great job with. He’s already shown he’s willing to put the work in and it’s going to be fun watching him, see how well he does. “
“Hopefully I’ll be able to fill out a lot more,” Eubanks said. “I still feel like I could put on a few more pounds of muscle. That’s really my goal right now, to bulk up a little bit more. To become a lot more flexible is another thing and just use those tools to help enhance my game as best as I can.”
He’s found his college workouts are a radical departure from working with Young but is getting used to them.
“I’m really starting to enjoy working on my volley technique with Kenny,” he said. “At first, it was very, very different from what I was used to. Practicing with Don, it was like, literally, you’d go out there and do baseline games and sets. I got really good at playing points and learning how to win matches, getting in different scenarios, what to do. Now it’s `Let’s work on this volleying technique over and over and over and over and over again.’ The first time I really wasn’t that happy about it but I knew it had to be done. It’s really starting to pay off and I’m really enjoying it. So I can’t wait to see where this is going to lead.”
Rakitt likes what he’s seeing from Eubanks and really likes where he’s headed.
“From where he was a year ago, where he had a good serve but it really was just because of his height, now he’s using his legs so well and he’s getting up so high,” he said. “He’s going to be one of those guys where his opponents are going to be throwing rackets and cussing everything out that they see because it’s just going to be so frustrating. That’s why he’s undoubtedly going to take over college tennis.”
When he’s not training for his coup on the ITA, Eubanks can most frequently be found keeping his fingers limber on the piano. The love of music runs in the family.
“I come from a long line of musicians,” said Eubanks, who started out playing drums and found his way to the piano around age 12. “My dad played piano and organ, my other uncle played piano and organ. I have another uncle who can play about 14 different instruments, so it kind of just fell in line.”
Playing music tames the ultra-competitive beast inside of him.
“It’s a way to take my mind off tennis and relax,” he said. “When I can go and do music that really, really calms me down. I enjoy the way I feel afterwards as opposed to being all tennis-oriented all day, every day.”
Eubanks’ love of jazz led him to take a course in the History of Jazz over the summer. Unknowingly at the time, there was, and still is, a bit of jazz history on the Georgia Tech campus, in Georgia Tech Wide Receiver Darren Waller, the great grandson of legendary 1920s and `30s Jazz pianist and entertainer “Fats” Waller. Having learned that has put Eubanks on a mission to meet Waller.
“I have to find out who he is,” said Eubanks, excitedly. “I have to find that guy, sit down and talk.”
Get The Good Word in your e-mail box — it’s free! Just register here to get the latest features on Georgia Tech Athletics.