2008 Men's Tennis Season Preview
Jan. 24, 2008
It is a sign of the consistent excellence expected by the Washington men's tennis team when an NCAA appearance, third-place Pac-10 finish, and an NCAA Singles Semifinalist is viewed as a down year. Yet that was the consensus after the Huskies' 2007 season reached a premature end in the NCAA first round.
Now the task for 14th-year Head Coach Matt Anger is to turn the year into a blip and guide the Huskies back into the late stages of the NCAA tournament. Washington has reached the final site of the NCAAs five times this decade, and despite a near total roster turnover since their last appearance in 2006, the latest batch of Huskies is anxious to prove themselves. 2008 marks the 100th season of Husky tennis, and the season will provide an opportunity to show how far the program has come, and where it is headed in the next 100 years.
One of Anger's largest and most talented freshman classes is the reason behind the optimism. Five true freshmen and one junior transfer join two redshirt freshmen and four veterans who started in singles in 2007. In the fall, all the newcomers showed glimpses of good things to come, while the returners exhibited continued improvements.
"We have a lot of new bodies out there playing," said Anger. "So the fall was a great time for them getting used to playing college matches. As always, it's a time for us to work on their game, but for me to just review how they're playing in matches and then make sure that we've got a good to-do list when it comes to working on their games as we head towards the season. It'll be a whole new ball game now when they play team matches, because that's something that they haven't done."
Anger could ask for no better leader for the freshmen than senior captain Andy Kuharszky. A three-year starter, Kuharszky has improved every season and judging by his play in the fall, when he reached the ITA Northwest Regional final, he is ready to lead the team on the court as well as off.
"The main thing we struggled with last season was pulling out close matches, and Andy is vital to us in those situations," said Anger. "He's known on the team as Clinch Eastwood for all the matches he's clinched. He's at his best in the team matches, when the matches are close, so we will really lean on Andy for that. He's been there and done that."
The team will be tasked with moving on in the post-Alex era of Husky tennis, as Alex Slovic ended his Husky career with an amazing run to the NCAA Semifinals that left him as the UW career combined singles and doubles wins leader. Slovic, a lefty from Serbia, had followed All-American Alex Vlaski, another lefty from Serbia, meaning Washington's top singles spot will have a new name penciled in for the first time since 2002.
"The real highlight of the year was Alex Slovic. He was playing hurt most of the year. So when he was mostly playing singles it was easier on his knee and he was able to get to the finals of the Pac-10 Championship and then make a run to the semifinals of the NCAA Championships. That ultimately really was the highlight for all the guys. Guys looked up to him and loved having him as a teammate so much that they were really pulling for him as well."
Without Slovic and the person he shared the all-time doubles record with, Daniel Chu, there is more mystery to this Husky team than in years past. But that mystery stems from an abundance of talent, and mystery usually leads to exciting finishes.
"I have good question marks. It's not like I'm wondering who I can throw out there," Anger says. "Where we're going to be strong this year is through the meat of the lineup, where maybe last year that was a bit of a weakness compared to this year's team."
The two players who enjoyed the most consistent success in the fall figure to lead off the Husky singles lineup in the spring. Kuharszky and junior Patrik Fischer each made tournament finals in the fall and Anger believes they are up to the challenge competing at the top levels. Last year, Fischer was solid in his first eligible season, going 18-11.
"You'd have to say that Andy and Patrik were the most consistent performers for us in the fall and they would be the top two guys," Anger says. "Patrik was very solid, and he was that way in practice too. He was very capable last year but he was a guy who struggled to finish off some of those matches."
The next three spots will likely be a combination of two freshmen and a sophomore. The returner is Derek Drabble, who came on strong at the end of last season, winning eight of his last nine singles matches.
"I'm pretty excited about this year hopefully being a step up for Derek and a breakthrough season. But he can't jump ahead. He's got to do it one day at a time, one match at a time, one game at a time," says Anger.
Jumping into the thick of the singles lineup will be freshmen Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan from India, and Tobi Obenaus of Austria. Nedunchezhiyan earned a ranking in the fall and was the only Husky to play in the ITA All-American Championships, going 1-1.
"Jeevan's best tennis is still ahead of him. He's got a lot of shots, he's a talented player, and he's someone I look at and say the sky's the limit for what he can do over the course of his career. Tobi Obenaus was very solid himself. For him there was a little more of an adjustment coming from clay courts. But he's made improvements. One thing we're fortunate with all the freshmen is they have adjusted to the team concept very well. We haven't even started the team matches yet, but thus far they've really done a great job with what we're asking them to do for the team."
Then there is the matter of the No. 6 singles spot, and as Coach Anger says, "Then it gets interesting." Here, Washington's depth is most apparent as there are two juniors who have been regular starters, and several talented freshmen all vying for the final spot. David Chu had a 7-5 dual record last season often at No. 6, and led the team with 10 fall wins. Ryo Sekiguchi is a new face from the University of San Diego, where he was a two-year starter and WCC Freshman of the Year in 2006. Those two have the inside track, but redshirt freshman Brad Bator and true freshman Martin Kildahl from Norway are in the mix.
"All of these guys are a factor and I know they're all hoping to be in there. I'd say based on the fall tournaments, Ryo and David were the most consistent. The other guys had good days and would beat them on certain days in practice, but in the tournaments they were the most consistent."
Doubles play should also be a strength for the Dawgs as the freshmen adjust to the intensity of college doubles. Thus far, Nedunchezhiyan, Kildahl, and Obenaus have all impressed, and could join up with the top returning doubles players, Kuharszky, Fischer, and Drabble.
"Really in the doubles I'd say for sure seven guys have been pretty consistent, and other guys have had good days too. It is in flux but I've got three different scenarios. Most of those I've got Tobi and Patrik together somewhere. They were pretty solid in the fall. Then do I go with Martin and Derek, or Derek and Jeevan? Then that affects who Andy is with. So I'm not worried about our doubles, we're just trying to pick the teams that are going to be the best throughout the season."
Washington will be nothing if not battle-tested by the time the NCAA Championships roll around in May. The Huskies face difficult road battles early in the season, a rejuvenated Pac-10 Conference late in the season, and play host to the premier invitational team event in college tennis for the centerpiece to their schedule. For the fifth time, Washington hosts the ITA National Men's Team Indoor Championships, which will gather 16 of the nation's elite at the Nordstrom Tennis Center and Seattle Tennis Club, from Feb. 15-18.
Washington has pulled significant first round upsets over top-10 teams the last two times UW has hosted, and will likely have to do so a third time to move ahead in the field.
"It's a thrill for us to host, selfishly, where we get to play on our own courts, but also for Seattle and the community," said Anger of the event. "I think this year it may look like a challenge because we're going to be ranked in the 30's in the preseason, but I think we're a lot better than that. We're going to have to play a top team right away, so that's tough for us, but it's going to be tough for them too. I think at the end of that tournament our new guys are going to know what college tennis is all about. Hopefully it's through good results, but even if it's not, they're going to be ready for the remainder of the season and the Pac-10."
To prepare the young team for the intensity of the National Team Indoors, the Husky coaches set up an early road trip to Baylor and Texas A&M, two perennial Top-25 teams. Baylor finished fourth in the final 2007 rankings.
"We wanted to get the freshmen into the fire, so that by the time the National Indoors arrive, they're going to be ready for that competition," explained Anger.
The Huskies will play a minimum of seven NCAA tournament teams from a year ago, with more to be added during the ITA National Team Indoors. Only four Pac-10 teams, including Washington, made the NCAA tourney last season, a remarkably low number for what is traditionally the best conference in the nation. UCLA and USC each reached the quarterfinals, and should bring strong teams to Seattle in late March, but Anger anticipates a major spike back up in the quality of the Pac-10 this season, which UW hopes to share in.
"I think the Pac-10 was the weakest it's ever been on the men's side, team-wise. As I'm talking to the other coaches, I think every coach has said, 'We're going to be a lot stronger this year,' and as you go through their lineup, it's true," says Anger. "Cal had a couple freshmen who were very solid in the fall. They're going to be very deep like us. Stanford has added a guy that's going to be ranked top-10 right away. They were very strong at the top of their lineup, so by adding another guy I think they're going to take a big jump. Both ASU and Arizona are going to be better. Oregon, last year they were virtually all freshmen, so they will have the same team but with a whole other year of experience. So I don't think there's a team that won't take a step up this year in the conference."
The schedule is daunting, but competing with the best is what Husky tennis has stood for throughout the past 100 years.