Championships Coming Home

Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 12:20 am | Updated: 8:40 pm, Tue Jun 12, 2012.

Nicholas Fouriezos

Home is not simply where the heart is for the Georgia men’s tennis team.

It’s actually where the championships are.

With six NCAA titles to their name — five coming in Athens -— the Bulldogs have established a sure-fire championship pedigree within the confines of Dan Magill Stadium.

And they love putting on a show for their fans.

“I love it when there is a big crowd and people are cheering me on -— it gets me going,” senior tennis player Ignacio Taboada said. “Overall, the positive emotion that comes with the crowd is going to take over and help us play even better.”

Again the NCAA men’s and women’s tennis championships will descend upon the mecca of college tennis in Athens, Ga., on May 18.

It’s the home of the ITA Men’s College Tennis Hall of Fame, boasts a seating capacity of more than 5,000 fans and has played host to the tournament a record 26 times, most recently in 2010.

But above all else, Georgia touts an unrivaled tennis experience.

“It’s a big feather in our cap,” Georgia head coach Manuel Diaz said about hosting the tournament. “I feel like we have the best atmosphere and the largest crowds that you see in college tennis — that makes for a very special student-athlete experience.”

Taboada agreed, saying the storied history of Georgia tennis is attractive to players.

“Every time I step on the court there is just this higher sense of tennisand it’s unbelievable for me,” he said. “You have a sense that it’s not just another program –— it’s Georgia.”

But not only the players will be drawn to Athens.

The tournament is certain to bring forth fans from all across the country.

University student and Georgia tennis fan Scott Slezak is one of the team’s biggest fans and chose to delay returning home in the summer so he could witness the tournament.

“I live in Nebraska,” Slezak said. “Typically I would fly back the day after finals. This year I’ve elected to push my flight back all the way to June 1, so that I can stay and see each of these matches.”

Slezak is a self-proclaimed tennis aficionado, a student of the game and a member of the local club tennis team.

But on Georgia game days, Slezak and his teammates become avid fans, decked in red wigs and goofy headbands.

“We just started this year,” said Stephen Burslem, one of Slezak’s teammates. “We randomly decided to go to a match and we said some jokes to the players and they laughed. We thought, ‘Maybe they actually like it’ and decided to go crazier in the next couple of matches.”

The goal isn’t just to cheer their own team on — it’s also to jeer the play of the opposing players.

“We make fun of opponents a lot,” Burslem said. “We like to get as much information on them as we can — girlfriends, etc.”

Slezak added that he was a “stud at creeping” and took his jeering very seriously.

“I was here last year against Tennessee and there was a player named Tennys Sandgren,” Slezak said. “I brought back some horrible tennis memories of his career and I actually got his dad to come after me. Maybe a bit of a low blow, but it’s college tennis — you have to get that homefield advantage going.”

Their taunts might be a small endeavor, but the rowdy ringleaders of Georgia’s tennis fans hope their efforts have played a role in the team’s success this season.

“Hopefully we help the match,” Burslem said. “We can’t really claim the victory at all, but we try to be loud and prove to the team that we help them.”

While the fan base has certainly been energized by the upcoming arrival of college tennis in Athens, it’s not just the students who are getting excited.

The administration also is feeling the budding enthusiasm grow — despite the extra work that comes with hosting the tournament.

“I know from the athletics department standpoint, it’s something we really get excited about,” said Matt Brachowski, the Assistant Athletic Director for Event Management at Georgia. “There are a few things in addition to what we would do in the regular season event, where we’ll bring in extra staff, ushers, security or police.”

Brachowski said the administration is excited to host this event in particular because it gives the team an undeniable “home-field advantage.”

“It certainly gives our team a home-field advantage — they don’t have to travel as much and the fan base is behind our teams,” Brachowski said. “Knowing that in future years we will be the host team can help from a recruiting standpoint too, because student-athletes can play on their home court in front of their families.”

The first and second rounds will be hosted in Athens and 15 other regional sites May 11 – 13.

Once the round of 16 has been set, all qualifying teams will meet in Athens for the NCAA Championships.

Until then, Bulldog players — as well as the fans and staff — will wait in fevered anticipation for the tournament’s return to the Classic City.

“There is a little bit of every sensation running through our heads because none of us that are starters have played here before in the NCAA Championships,” Taboada said. “We have a lot of characters on the team and a lot of guys who, when the crowd cheers them on, open up and let their characters show. I think with the big crowds you will see a lot of fun tennis out there.”

 

-Source: Red & Black

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