By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word -
THE FLATS -- Some Jackets hopped on a plane Thursday afternoon, which they do often enough. It was not typical, though.
For as numbingly and painfully normal as it is for the Georgia Tech men’s tennis team to play Georgia, they’ve never played before a national TV audience.
And they’re about to do just that, so, yeah, they’re excited in an atypical way.
When the Jackets (3-3) take on the No. 4 Bulldogs (2-0) Friday night in Orlando on the Tennis Channel as part of USTA College MatchDay – a new and impressive pump up for the sport – they’ll make history.
In the ever-evolving world of broadcasting, sports beyond football and basketball are becoming programming options as TV executives look for inventory that is both non-repetitive and difficult to find elsewhere.
It helps when there are so many good back-stories for the telecast.
So, you can find Tech-UGA at 7 p.m. on the Tennis Channel, which is televising a weekly series of matchups between college rivals, beginning last week with Florida/Florida State at the USTA’s 1,200-seat National Campus Collegiate Stadium.
“I think it’s awesome. I think it’s incredible. The opportunity to play on live, national TV is incredible,” said head coach Kenny Thorne. “The facility down there is great; they’ve gotten really good crowds.”
The odds are stacked against the Jackets yet again in their latest matchup, as Tech student-athletes have lost all nine singles matchups against Georgia players this season, dating back to the fall campaign. They’re 0-3 in doubles confrontations.
Tech last beat Georgia in men’s tennis just about seven years ago to the day, when Dean O’Brien rallied from a 3-5 deficit in the third set at No. 6 singles to win and clinch a 4-3 victory for the No. 21 Jackets over the No. 11 Bulldogs at the old Bill Moore Tennis Center.
That was an epic, epic moment.
None of these Jackets were on that team, or in attendance.
But they get it.
Everybody on The Flats gets a matchup with the Bulldogs, and the Jackets don’t give two hoots about the fact that they have one player in the ITA rankings in freshman Carlos Divar (No. 39) or that Georgia has five.
This figures to be a charged environment, even moreso than if it were played in Athens, which the normal rotating schedule called for this season. So many thing about this match will be adrenalized that the usual excitement will not be lost yet rather amplified.
“I think definitely both sides [will be jacked up],” said senior Michael Kay. “A lot of people like to get pretty rowdy, and plus we’re going to have fireworks after the national anthem and a bigger crowd, and all the players are going to be getting loud and excited. I think it’s going to be a fun crowd.”
It’s been a while since the Jackets played a match outdoors, and with the knowledge that this one will be played in the elements, Tech has practiced outdoors a few times recently, even in sketchy weather.
The Jackets didn’t mind. They’re looking forward.
“I think it’s going to be a really cool experience for a lot of guys,” said senior Elijah Melendez. For me personally, playing on national television is really cool . . . We’ve been looking at the weather. I think it’s going to be high 60s when we play . . . it’s going to be a night match, under the lights. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
It’s possible that when broadcast officials made this matchup last fall they figured that Christopher Eubanks would be on the Tech roster, putting one of the nation’s very best college tennis players on the screen.
But after sitting out the fall to ponder his future after a highly successful summer and early fall playing as an amateur on the pro circuit, Eubanks decided to turn professional for good.
That’s why Divar, in his second semester from Spain, is playing at No. 1 singles, where he’s 4-1 with a 13-4 record including fall action.
Losing Eubanks – who continues to work out at Ken Byers Tennis Complex when he is in town – didn’t help the Jackets.
But they’re not sulking.
“To me, that’s such an opportunity for other people to grow,” Thorne said. “When he had the summer he had, I think everybody was like, ‘Whoa! It would be surprising if he did come back.’
“Our mindset turned to next man up. Let’s go. Let’s give guys an opportunity to put it on their shoulders.”
Tech’s unique opportunity to play on national television may help recruiting.
“Looking back to when I was a recruit, if I had a chance to see some film of guys playing on national TV with great crowds and great energy, that’s huge,” Kay said. “You’re really excited to play for crowds and the name of the school and everything, so I think from a recruiting standpoint it’s huge . . .
“It definitely feels different, and everybody is hyped up. I’m excited to go out there and do something unique and different.”
Other than Tech’s win over Georgia in 2011, the Jackets haven’t beaten Georgia since 1988, when Thorne was a senior.
If they were to win again, it would be, to steal from Kay – a Georgia transfer – huge.
They’ll have fans in the stands to help, and it won’t be difficult to get jacked up.
Former Georgia Tech head coach Jean Desdunes, who is now senior director diversion and inclusivity for the USTA, and former Jacket tennis player Roger Anderson, who played under Thorne, are going to lend hands.
“I’ve got guys that played on my team from the [Orlando] area saying they’re bringing out a lot of people,” Thorne said. “Friends of guys on the team from Tampa are coming. Jean Desdunes . . . I told him he needs to rally folks. Roger Anderson . . . we’ll have some fans.
“It will be fun. It’s easy when you’re playing Georgia, but also being on the Tennis Channel is obviously a huge bonus. It’s natural hype. You don’t have to get hyped up for this match, but the atmosphere is going to be great.”