Sept. 17, 2009
ATLANTA – Head Coach Kenny Thorne is about to embark on his 12th season at the helm of the Georgia Tech men’s tennis program. Thorne welcomes back everybody from last year’s 10-11 squad, which went 5-6 in the ACC, and the Yellow Jackets have added two freshmen and a highly-regarded transfer.
The Yellow Jackets open the fall campaign this weekend with the Southern Intercollegiate Championships in Athens, Ga., an event in which 10 of the 11 Tech players will compete. Only freshman Juan Spir (Medellin, Columbia), who will resume full activity next week following spring should surgery, will not play.
Tech enters the fall with three players appearing in the pre-season Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings – junior Guillermo Gomez (Alicante, Spain) at No. 5, transfer Dean O’Brien (Benmore, South Africa) at No. 82, and sophomore Kevin King (Peachtree City, Ga.) at No. 111.
Following this weekend’s competition, Tech will host its annual Fall Invitational the weekend of Oct. 3-5 at the Bill Moore Tennis Center.
Coach Thorne sat down with RamblinWreck.com to discuss the upcoming fall season.
What is your objective this weekend in your first competition of the fall?
“It’s good because the guys have been practicing hard and playing actually a decent amount all summer. To get into the first tournament, it always helps to see where we are, and it’s the first chance at the college scene for the freshmen and the returners to go ahead and establish themselves. It’s a good opportunity to get individual rankings, a good opportunity to see where doubles teams are. We play around a little bit with different teams throughout the fall to establish ourselves where we need to be. You can break away in the fall, you can really break out. In a tournament format, not the team format, it’s open. You win, you win the tournament. It’s a good opportunity for a lot of guys.”
Who’s in the three divisions in singles?
“We tried to get everybody in as high as we could. It’s a tough draw though. They get a lot of teams, a lot of SEC schools a few of the ACC. You get some of the smaller schools that have very good players in it. It’s very tough and a good way to start off. You find out real quick where you are.”
This is a time to experiment a little bit with your doubles pairings. Who are you going to go with in this competition?
“Right now we’ve got Guillermo Gomez and (freshman) Magin Ortiga who are playing together. We’ve got Eliot Potvin and Austin Roebuck playing together, Miguel Muguruza and Doug Kenny, and we’ve got Kevin King and Dusan Miljevic. Juan’s out, so Ryan Smith and Dean O’Brien are playing together.
“Literally we have a lot of options in doubles, and that is a good problem to have, but at the same time we don’t play in enough tournaments in the fall to necessarily get teams together and settle in. We’ve been doing a lot more match play in practice trying to see where our teams are going to settle in. This will definitely be an indicator, but we’ve got quite a few guys this year, especially with a lot of juniors this year, who know how to play doubles. They’ve played and had some experience in the past for us. There are a lot of guys that can jump in the doubles lineup. It will be very interesting to see these teams go this weekend.”
You have everybody available for this weekend’s tournament except your freshman, Juan Spir. What is his injury?
“He had surgery (in the spring) and coming next week it will be four months, and he’s not supposed to hit serves through that four-month period. He’s going to start hitting serves next week. He’s doing great, and he’s not feeling any pain. It was on the shoulder, there was a slight tear. They did that down in Columbia. He got it done by the Olympic doctor down there, who did a great job, and we think everything is absolutely fine. He’s playing, doing everything now that everyone else is doing, except for serving. He’s the only one that is going to be out this weekend.”
What do you want to try to accomplish in the fall as a whole?
“I would absolutely love to establish our doubles as soon as we can, as soon as possible. That hurts a little with Juan being out. He’s a good doubles player. You’ve got to account for that, having players out all throughout the season. In the fall we take outside competition as far as how we do our lineup. How you do against outside competition in the fall and going into the spring is one of the main criteria for making a lineup. This year we are going to have a lot of guys fighting for spots. We have a lot of depth. For some of the guys that didn’t play quite as many tournaments over the summer, this is a good opportunity to hop in there and start.”
It’s a good opportunity, but it’s also a little more critical for them, right? You got everybody back and have three more guys in the mix and have more competition.
“Absolutely, and it’s been great in practice. All the guys handle competition well. There are going to be some good players that aren’t going to play for us this year. That is just part of being on a good team. It is critical. But we’ll have this week and three other opportunities in the fall to be able to see what they have.”
What’s the hallmark of this group? What do you expect people to see when they watch them play?
“I think they are going to see a heck of a lot of fight. I think these guys have been through a lot together. We’ve had a couple tough seasons, but we’ve really drawn together. This team wants to win, and they want to win badly. So I think you’re going to see a team that senses an urgency that they need to get out there and fight to win. They’re not going to be happy unless they win. I think that’s what you’ll see.”
Gomez obviously is the guy who has accomplished a lot and gotten a lot of recognition his first couple of years – ACC Rookie of the year first year and All-American last year. What did he do over the summer and what do you expect to see him now?
“Over the summer he stayed here and went to summer school, got some hours in an worked on his conditioning. He’s come back in better shape than he was in his first two years. Right now he is hitting the ball as well as he has ever hit the ball.
“He has made statements that he wants to be number one in the nation. I don’t doubt it. He’s fine right now. There’s a lot of work to be done there to consistently be up there. But one thing he has been is consistent. He is very consistent and beating the players he should beat. We’ve worked on certain areas of his game that I think that he might have gotten hurt last year. He’s improved those areas. It’s fun to work with somebody that’s not just trying to hold onto something.
“He trying to improve and that’s in all areas, with his school work; in anything he does, he’s trying to improve. He’s definitely not satisfied with where he is. That helps everybody on the team to see that he’s not just coasting and that he’s looking to get better.”
“I feel like he improved the most he ever has over the summer. He actually came in a year early. He was a senior in high school playing his last year as a freshman in college. He handled himself well, but took a couple of tough matches. And decided he really needed to work a bit harder, and he started at the end of the spring and all throughout the summer.
“He played a lot of tournaments this summer. He went and played some beginning level pro tournaments. Then by the end of the summer, he really started lifting his game mentally and physically. And he had a good win over the number one kid in the nation. I think that helped his confidence. He just seems a little bit more mature this year going into the season. He’s ready to step up for our team. He’s going to be fighting for spots up at the top of the lineup the way he is playing right now. I think he is excited about it and I think he is more ready for it right now. His goals are very high. He wants to go out after college and play. He’s also looking to improve his game every day.”
Your other freshman last year, Dusan Miljevic, had quite a lot to adjust to. How did he handle not only living in this country, going to college here, academics, everything that got thrown at him?
“He took it for a while, and did well with it, and then he had some tough matches. We’re up in the ACC, and any spot there is difficult. I think if had been able to get over the hump in a few more of those matches, he could have had a very good season. I think he lost those matches and I think he lost a lot of confidence.
“But he went back to work. He got a coach, and did not take it as a summer off. He took it as a summer to improve. He worked his tail off all summer. We’re looking at him when he get back, and said it looks like he has gotten a lot better. I think he feels good about where his game is. He’s quick has a very solid backhand. And he’s got the game to do very well. He just has to mentally get ready to hop in there in the beginning at his first tournament.”
Aside from Gomez, you’ve got a handful of juniors and a senior that have played a lot of matches here. How much does that experience help you as a team?
“It helps a ton. We have the experience we need, the consistency. With that many guys that have a number of matches under their belt, they are not going to be surprised by the competition, not going to be happy just being in the lineup. They are going to want to win in the lineup. There is a big difference between wanting to make the lineup, getting in the lineup, playing well against some teams. They know that’s not acceptable, it’s getting in there and reaching the goals we set for this team.
In that group, does anybody jump out in terms of strides they made over the summer or anything exceptional they accomplished over the summer?
“We’ll find out this weekend more about where they are. That’s why I’m really looking forward to this weekend. A couple of them have looked very good in practice lately. They have been practicing hard as of late. I don’t know how much it actually has to do with how they’ve practiced over the summer. They’re starting to really hit the ball very well going into the tournament this weekend.
You have a transfer from Tennessee Tech, Dean O’Brien, who has had some success and is ranked No. 82 in the ITA. What are you expecting from him?
“He is definitely capable, and he’s got the same amount of experience as our other guys. It’s nice when you get a transfer because they already have that experience. He came from Tennessee Tech which is not the same competition as we face, but he won. He is used to winning. He did it very consistently. He’s got a phenomenal work ethic, and he’s a great kid. He’s as good a team member as you could ask for. So he’s bringing a lot and obviously you want him to bring the wins. That’s what it boils down to. But at the same time he’s already brought a lot to our team as far as work ethic and what we are trying to define ourselves by. He’ll just have to adapt to the consistency of the level of competition that he’s going to face every week now. There’s not many easy matches that he’s going to be playing. “
Talk about your two freshmen. I know one (Juan Spir) is injured right now, but he’s a big guy (6-foot-4).
“We needed somebody to get out of that range of 5-10. The biggest part of his game that we haven’t even seen yet (because of his shoulder injury) is his serve. He hits a big ball. We need to get him out there and playing matches. He’s even had in the juniors, and beginning of the whole pro tournaments, very good wins that show that I think he will adapt very well in college quickly. He’s pretty mature.
Magin (Ortiga) has been used to having success in the juniors. He seems to play well under pressure. He’s a guy that, when it’s a big point or a break point, he finds a way to get the ball in. It’s hard to beat him under pressure. That’s tough to teach. It’s one of those things where you can talk about it, coach it, but he’s someone who feels it. He’s a fighter. He’s a tough guy to beat.”
How did you come across him playing at the juniors?
“He played in a tournament in the Orange Bowl. He was at the time possibly going to go on and play in the pro tour. It’s one of those where you keep your eye on and see. I knew his coach as well from when I played on the tour. He decided thought that it’d probably be better to go on to college, and eventually go on to the pro tour. I made a call down to his coach and found out he was doing that. We’re thrilled to get him, great kid, great family, and a good student too. He’s going to do very well. Both of them, both of the freshmen I think.”
Talk about your schedule a little bit and what the competition in the league is going to be like?
“It’s always tough. We usually have maybe five teams that are top 25. One team gets in there, top five or so, while some others are right around top 15 or so. Every year different teams pop up in there. You can finish top four or five in the league but be a top 20 team. Most of the matches you are playing are against teams that will be in the (NCAA) tournament. We don’t get that many dates, only twenty one. So the first few might not be, but after that we jump in with the national indoors and then straight off go down to Florida.
“We play a few of the SEC schools, South Carolina, Georgia, and Auburn every year. So, we play a lot of tournament teams and very good teams. If you get on a roll, you can really do well and get very high. If you have an injury or two then it’s tough. It kind of hit us and hurt us in the past a little bit. These guys understand if they come to Georgia Tech, they have to win against that sort of competition. Whether you got a full team or not, you got to find a way to get the W’s.
Do you sit down now or after the fall and say we should win this many matches, or we should finish here in the conference? Do sit down and try to assess that and create goals along those lines?
“We set different goals somewhere to that. But it’s one of those things where every match on our schedule is so big we might try to divide it up into sections and set goals that way. It’s one of those things where you sit down and see where your team is and what significant injuries you have. But at the same time you come back to the overall goal which is to fight and win every single match. We have got to find a way to motivate our guys to do that every single match. Whether it’s dividing it up into the ACC and the SEC, we’ll use different things like that. But you’ll see with this team, it’s going to irritate them to lose to anybody. That’s what you hope for, and I think that’s what we have.