By Jon Cooper | The Good Word -
THE FLATS -- Sometimes the best way to establish leaders is to just throw guys into the role.
That’s what Georgia Tech men’s tennis is doing this spring as it faces its first season without Christopher Eubanks, who turned pro in October.
In his three years on the Flats, Eubanks became larger than life, literally standing over most opponents at 6-7 and towering over them with a presence at No. 1 singles that saw him go 39-4 in his final two seasons. He became only the second player in ACC history – Georgia Tech’s first – to win conference men’s tennis Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons, and his 90 career singles wins tie him for fifth with 2017 Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame inductee Roger Anderson.
“What Chris did – barely even losing matches – doesn’t happen often,” said head coach Kenny Thorne, who was only 22 wins ahead of Eubanks in second place all-time in program history. “That’s just very unusual, especially at the 1 spot because everybody has a good 1 spot.”
Eubanks, who recently was runner up at the ITF USA F1 Futures in Los Angeles over the weekend, was the biggest but not the program’s only loss. Cole Fiegel, who was second in singles wins with 22 and led the team with 24 doubles wins, 16 in dual meets and Carlos Benito, who was 17-15 in doubles, also graduated.
But hindsight isn’t part of the Jackets plan for the spring season.
Instead, they’re looking ahead and plan to come out swinging.
They displayed that on Tuesday in a 7-0, 7-0 day/night doubleheader sweep of The Citadel at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex. They’ve got some pretty good swingers, too, starting at the top, where sophomore Carlos Divar begins the season at No. 1 singles and doubles, where he’ll team with senior captain Michael Kay, his partner for a short time last year.
“It’s really exciting. I cannot wait to start playing really tough matches and showing everybody that I can play 1,” said Divar, who dropped only three games in his two singles wins and won 6-2 and 6-3 with Kay. “I know I’m going to have tough matches against really good opponents but I’m ready for it.
“We lost three players, Carlos Benito, Fiegel and Eubanks, really good players,” he added. “It’s going to be hard to forget them but we have really good players that can do well, who didn’t play last season so I’m not really worried about it. I know ‘Banks’ is a really good player and maybe we’ll miss him in a few moments of the season but we’re going to get over it.”
Thorne believes the native of Vitoria, Spain, who went 14-9 in singles (13-8 in dual matches) and 13-11 in doubles as a freshman (7-4 with Benito) last season, plays much bigger than his mere 5-9, 159-pound frame.
“He’s a competitor,” said Thorne. “The guy, I would say maybe a month into the fall season, embraced understanding that, ‘Hey, someone’s going to need to fill this spot,’ and he’s done a great job of doing it. Carlos is a scrappy, physical player that is never going to give in to anything. I think he’ll handle (No. 1) just fine but there are a few guys that could step in in that position.”
Right behind Divar is Andrew Li, who actually played right behind Eubanks at No. 2 most of last season. Li had a successful Tuesday, winning his lone singles match, 6-1, and taking a pair of doubles matches, 6-2 with sophomore Chris Yun in the opener then 7-6 (7-0) in the nightcap with Chris’ older brother, Daniel, a senior.
For Li, a Hong Kong native who worked his way not only into the lineup as a sophomore but to a No. 61 national ranking, it was a nice return to the court, as he’d been unable to play during the summer or fall while coming back from a shoulder injury.
“After the injury, it gave me a different perspective. I’m just happy to be able to play,” said Li, who went 20-14 at No. 2 singles (10-7 in duals) and 19-9 in doubles (15-4 with Fiegel). “Just being on the court makes me happy. Then I feel like whenever I’m happy I play well. That’s the reason I play tennis is to be happy. I’m happy playing in Ken Byers again, just getting the same feel.
“Physically, right now, (my game is) where I was,” he added. “It’s just more getting back the confidence and mindset. Honestly, I think physically I’m beyond where I was because I was working a lot in the gym, spending a lot of time doing conditioning and weight stuff.”
Thorne is happy to see Li healthy again and crisply hitting the way he’s capable.
“I think with Andrew strikes the ball as well as anybody in the nation,” he said. “So all he needs is matches to get back in mentally.
“Freshman year, we took him out of the lineup. He wasn’t playing. Then he comes in the next year and moves from in the lineup barely to No. 2 in the lineup, with a ranking,” he added. “But it wasn't by chance. He outworked everybody. He’s the one that you like to talk about, you like to write about -- the hard work, he’s a really smart kid. He’s going to do well.”
Thorne had the luxury of being able to play everybody and not over-play anybody, as Li only played doubles in the nightcap against The Citadel. Daniel Yun, who also is coming back from injury that kept him out in the fall, played with Li at No. 2 and at No. 3 singles in the nightcap. Only junior Phillip Gresk, who suffered a minor injury over the holiday break, sat both matches Tuesday. But he’s expected to be ready for the weekend.
The Jackets had plenty of depth, as Kay and fellow senior Elijah Melendez had perfect days in singles and doubles. Melendez played at No. 3 doubles, with hard-hitting freshman Brandon Freestone and at 5 and 4 singles, while Kay was No. 1 doubles with Divar and No. 4 and 5 singles.
Tech players dropped only one set against the overmatched Bulldogs.
“I would, honestly, rather have had a few more practices before we played our first match so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the guys competed well,” Thorne said. “I thought their shot selection was pretty good and they kept decent discipline. I was pleased with that.
“I think we made a few kind of bad volley errors (in doubles). I don’t think we’re volleying real poorly but I felt like we just made some errors early that got us in trouble,” he added. “But you always look to see how people respond and early in the season you need to respond and not panic and just kind of dig in. I think we’re going to be in decent shape. I think we’re going to have two or three teams that are going to get along well and jell together.”
They’ll take the court again this weekend at the MLK Invitational at Byers Complex, where they’ll take on Columbia, Illinois, and Georgia. It’ll be a stiff test, as all three schools went deep into last spring’s NCAA Tournament. Columbia reached the third round before falling to eventual champion Virginia, Illinois got to the quarterfinals, and Georgia lost, 4-3, in the semifinals.
It’s a chance for the guys, Divar, and Li to take another step forward as leaders.
“I think both of them are understanding, ‘Hey, let’s runs with this. I’m going to not look around and hopefully someone else is going to do it. It’s ME,’” said Thorne.
But Thorne noted that for the Jackets to succeed it’s going to take converting that ME to WE and it’s going to take leadership from everyone not just the top two spots -- something else he’s also noticed from the squad.
“Andrew, Daniel, Chris, Carlos, those guys really feed off each other,” he said. “Then our captain’s Michael Kay, who has done a great job with getting the guys together and really getting them focused on the season. He’s a senior showing some good leadership.”
Divar speaks for the team when he says he’s ready for what’s next.
“I felt pretty good for being the first match of the season. It was a good warmup for the next match this week,” he said. “I’m just happy to play. I cannot wait to start the season and play really good matches.”