2007 Men's Tennis Outlook
Jan. 18, 2007
Washington's men's tennis team has experienced a run of success over the last six years that has been unparalleled in Husky history. The run can best be described as "sweet." Husky head coach Matt Anger and the rest of his squad hope to shed that label. The word they are searching for, and that has been within tantalizing reach of their grasp, is "elite."
The Huskies have advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 in five of the last six years, but have fallen short in each of their attempts to advance into the Elite Eight. The 2006 season was no different, as the Huskies won a first round match up against Penn State and a second-round battle against Virginia Commonwealth before falling to Baylor in the familiar territory of the round of 16.
"I think some years when we have just made the Sweet 16, we've been happy," said Anger, the 2005 Pac-10 Coach of the Year. "I think in the last two years we have been a little bit more disappointed. Even though we know how difficult it is to get there, we've had teams that have been disappointed that we didn't go further."
Despite the setbacks in the NCAA Championships, the UW tennis program has plenty to hold its head high about. Besides reaching the Sweet 16 in five of the last six years, the Huskies are coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, the first time since 1985 and 1986 that they consecutively reached the 20-win plateau.
Not only are the Huskies excelling in the venerable Pac-10 Conference, tying for first in 2005 (20-5 overall, 6-1 Pac-10) and tying for third in 2006 (20-6, 5-2), but also they are holding their own on the national stage (26-11 record in last two seasons against ranked opponents). Now that the Huskies are penetrating the upper echelon of the Pac-10 standings -- the Huskies had been fourth or worse in the Conference from 1998 to 2004 -- the Huskies are hoping to remain on top.
If Washington is to duplicate its success from past seasons, they must do so without three major cogs from the 2006 team. Gone from last year are one-year French wonders Pierre Metenier and Jean-Noel Insausti, who played No. 2 and 3 singles respectively for a majority of the season. Also departed is No. 6 singles stalwart Klaus Jank, who returned to his native Germany to complete his college studies.
Anger and the Huskies entered January of last season not knowing what kind of commodities they had in Metenier and Insausti. What they quickly learned was that they had struck gold in the two French imports. The Huskies will have to somehow replace a combined 20-4 record from the No. 2 singles and 11-6 record from the No. 3 singles that the duo provided. Insausti also teamed with Michael Ricks in doubles and was 12-10 from the No. 3 spot.
As the Huskies approach the start of another dual season, Anger may have fewer mysteries about his personnel, but a concrete singles lineup has yet to emerge. Beyond the certainty that senior Alex Slovic will start as the No. 1 singles player for a second-consecutive season, Anger will have to mix-and-match from an assortment of experienced and youthful players. The big question will be whether or not that lineup can maintain, and perhaps even surpass, the high standard set by those before them.
"I go back and forth," said Anger about his team's chances of advancing further in the NCAAs this year. "There are some days when I look out at us and see that we have three seniors, but that some of the other parts of our team are young and inexperienced. Then I have other days when I look out at those guys and see that they are improving and I think that they're doing all right and we could put this together. It's up to us to work hard and see how far we can go this year."
THE LINEUP Exactly how far the Huskies go depends heavily on Slovic's ability to be the team's lead dog. The senior, who was ranked 98th in the ITA pre-season singles rankings, led Washington with a 28-15 record in singles in 2005, including a 17-8 record from the No. 1 spot. His 28 wins equaled the fifth most in school history, while his 76 career singles victories are eighth most in school history.
The 2004 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and 2006 First-Team All-Pac-10 member will once again face the best-of-the-best from the opponent. Slovic was 9-13 against ranked opponents and 19-2 against everyone else in 2006. He was 1-7 against opponents ranked in the Top-10 last season, earning his lone win against No. 4 Conor Niland of California. Despite some struggles, Anger is confident that Slovic will improve even more this season.
"There are no hiding places when you're playing No. 1," said Anger. "Every match is tough and I think Alex is ready for that. He was only able to play in one event in the fall due to tendonitis in his knee, but he is fine now. He is just that much more solid and consistent and reliable. I think he is going to have his best year yet."
Slovic will also be counted on in doubles. For the past two years, Slovic has paired with Daniel Chu and posted a 24-9 record and reached an ITA national ranking as high as No. 5 in 2005. Despite the previous success and a pre-season ITA West Region ranking of No. 7, Anger is contemplating shaking up partners.
Newcomer Patrik Fischer and senior Michael Ricks are the most certain duo to start the season paired together after going 7-1 during the fall, including winning the Bulldog Classic doubles title. The duo is ranked No. 35 nationally in doubles. After that, Anger may initially combine left-handers Slovic and Chu with one of three right-handers: junior Andy Kuharszky, freshman Derek Drabble or sophomore Andy Gerst. Anger also warns that you also can't count out sophomore David Chu or freshman Holden Ching from seeing doubles action.
"Sometimes in a doubles team you want to have contrasting styles," explained Anger. "Rather than have two lefties together and then two righties with similar styles together, I think that if I mix those together it will make it a little different in how they compliment each other. At the same time, it will make it a little tougher on other teams.
"Last year we were inexperienced at doubles and I think that this year we're going to have a lot more experience. We're going to have four guys that are experienced, and other young guys that have the potential to be very good doubles players. If we can get the chemistry right with the teams, the parts are there so we can be more consistent throughout the season."
One person that has epitomized consistency for the Huskies both on the court and in the classroom is Daniel Chu, one of three seniors on the roster. Chu won 26 doubles matches last season, the second most in Husky history, and is tied for ninth all-time in UW history with 64 doubles wins. Chu also made huge strides in singles, posting a 22-11 overall record. He was a perfect 4-0 at No. 3, 8-4 at No. 4, and 6-2 at No. 5 in dual meets. He also excels in the classroom, earning first team Pac-10 All-Academic honors for two-straight seasons.
"Daniel has made a jump in his consistency," said Anger about the Vancouver, B.C. native. "Even on an off day, he is able to play at a high level. He's trying to be a leader and brings a level of responsibility to the team that is bringing more urgency to his effort and performance every day."
The third senior on the roster that Anger is expecting big things from is Ricks. He earned a No. 39 ITA doubles ranking in January with Insausti and ended up fourth on the team with 19 doubles wins. He paired with Fischer in the fall and went 7-1 and won the Bulldog Classic further cementing his doubles stature. He will add a new expected role as the projected No. 6 singles starter.
"Mike is really well-rounded and has really improved now that he's been healthy," said Anger. "He's earned the right to be starting for us in singles and doubles. I know he's looking forward to it and I'm looking forward to it too."
Anger is also looking forward to seeing the continuing progress of Andy Kuharszky. The junior from Hungary shined in the fall with a 6-1 record in singles and won the first tournament of his collegiate career by taking the title at the Bronco Classic. He'll be expected to compete for a top starting spot after going 14-9 in dual meets mostly at the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in 2006. His fall play earned him a No. 21 singles ranking in the ITA West Region.
"One of our most improved players is Andy Kuharszky," said Anger, who played against Kuharszky's father, Zoltan, at Wimbledon in 1985. "He has just taken up his game a level. It will be interesting to see how high we can put him up in the lineup. This year I'm looking at him to be in the two to four range."
Another player expected to compete for a top-end singles spot is Patrik Fischer, who had to sit out his freshman season. The ambidextrous sophomore from Switzerland has impressed in practice and was finally unleashed in the fall. Fischer is rated as the No. 30 singles player in the ITA West Region rankings after going 4-3 in singles and 7-1 with Ricks in doubles. Anger said that Fischer struggled at times in the fall, but has unlimited potential this spring for the Huskies.
"I think now he understands his own game better and knows what he can and can't do on the court," said Anger. "He is playing within himself and is that much more solid. If Patrik is playing the way that I think he can play, he might be the guy that starts out at No. 2 for our team."
Another fresh face the Huskies are counting on is freshman Derek Drabble. The South African impressed Anger with his dominating serve in practice and feels that with more seasoning, can immensely help the Huskies. He projects to compete for one of the lower-end singles spot and compete in doubles for the Huskies.
"(Derek) has gone from looking good, but maybe struggling against everyone to looking good and making life difficult for everyone else on the court," said Anger. "If he keeps progressing, he might have the biggest serve of anyone ever at Washington."
While Drabble has Anger drooling about his potential, the coach is equally impressed with the progress of sophomore David Chu and potential of freshman Holden Ching. Chu, the younger brother of Daniel, was a player that continually impressed Anger in fall camp, while Ching had the coach gushing about his potential. Both will provide the Huskies with singles depth and give the team more options in doubles.
Coach Anger also expects to have more options with the return of sophomore Andy Gerst, who missed fall after having a procedure done on his knee. Gerst figures to be a dependable option in the doubles lineup as long as he can stay healthy.
"If he starts putting things together with his game and be more consistent, he can be a starter for us," said Anger. "He just needs a block of time where he can keep working and improving."
The final player on the Husky roster is freshman Alex Rosinski, who Anger expects to redshirt this season to develop more consistency.
THE SCHEDULE Once again the Huskies will embark on an ambitious schedule. Besides the Pac-10 Conference slate, the Huskies will play a non-conference schedule that includes five teams that made the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
The Dawgs will open up with home matches against Eastern Washington and Idaho before heading to Ohio State to face a Buckeyes team that advanced to the quarterfinals of last year's NCAA Team Championships. They'll return home to face BYU and then host the Great Northwest Shootout in February, where NCAA Tournament participants Louisville and Middle Tennessee State are also scheduled to compete.
In early March, the Huskies go on the road again and see the likes of Minnesota, who advanced to the second round of the NCAA's, and Notre Dame, who like the Huskies, made it to the Round of 16 last year.
The Huskies then nestle a home match against Gonzaga and a road trip to Hawai'i before embarking on their Pac-10 slate. Four Pac-10 foes made the NCAA Tournament last year, including UCLA, which won the National Title in 2005 and returns 2006 NCAA Singles champion Ben Kohlloeffel.
With a grueling schedule and influx of new players, the Huskies' hopes of returning to the Round of 16, and perhaps further, will be a daunting task. But Anger has confidence that the 99th year of Husky tennis will continue moving his program forward and add more strength to the solid foundation he has built up in his 12 years at Washington.
"As I look back to when I started coaching, it has been a matter of steps," explained Anger about his program's progress. "We were trying to get a team that could get to the tournament and we were able to start doing that consistently. Then we progressed to trying to get to the Sweet 16 and now we're doing that.
"We still have work to do and I spend my time thinking about how we're going to be able to break through, take more steps and get closer to the title. I've got a ring, but I want a championship ring with purple on it."