Tennis programs brew championship culture

  • By Crews Enochs
  • April 27, 2013
  • Comments Off on Tennis programs brew championship culture

Posted: Saturday, April 27, 2013 12:04 pm

PRESTON SMITH 

Georgia has always been good, even on the national stage, but lately the tennis teams have reached a whole new level of success.

The Georgia men’s tennis team is coming off a sweep of the SEC regular season and tournament titles this season, and will carry a No. 3 national ranking into the NCAA tournament. The women’s team is also No. 3 nationally, won a share of the SEC regular season title and made it to the SEC tournament final before falling to No. 1 Florida. And then there is the Bulldogs’ club tennis team, who captured the USTA Tennis On Campus National Championship on April 13 over rival Florida, 26-24.

Needless to say, the Bulldogs are living up to their legacy at the top of the collegiate tennis world.

“The experience of winning the club tennis national championship is one of the greatest moments of my life,” Scott Slezak, captain of the club tennis team said. “I never could have had that at another school, whether that be playing varsity tennis at Gustavus (Adolphus College) or club anywhere else.”

Slezak, a Nebraska native who will graduate in May, had the opportunity to play at both the division II and division III level, most notably at Gustavus Adolphus College, but chose to come to Athens for a combination of reasons.

“Although playing tennis at Gustavus would have been incredible, I felt that club tennis would still be a great option for me,” Slezak said. “The rest of my criteria, from academics, to social life, to location, all favored UGA over Gustavus by far. Also, as such a huge tennis fan, I had always heard that Athens, Ga., was the greatest place in the country for college tennis.”

Some athletes suggest that the dynasty has been created as a result of Athens’ beautiful atmosphere.

“First and foremost, since Georgia is such a tennis-loving state, there are simply more players to choose from here,” Slezak said. “Second, since UGA has the greatest collegiate facilities and coaches in the country, and Athens is such an awesome city, recruiting for the college teams is much easier than for other universities. The long-standing tennis tradition at UGA is still going strong, and current coaches Manny Diaz and Jeff Wallace, along with all of the assistant coaches, have done a tremendous job.”

In that regard, “tremendous job” might be an understatement. Women’s tennis head coach Wallace  owns more wins than any other active women’s tennis coach with a 606-148 career record — a .804 winning percentage. He is also the only person to be named ITA Coach of the Year four times in Division-I history, most recently in 2009.

Wallace has led the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament 27 out of 28 times, including two national championships in 1994 and 2000.

“It’s awesome (being at a school that is devoted to all of its tennis programs). It’s fantastic and that’s the way it should be,” Wallace said. “I’m excited that this university has such exciting tennis at all different levels…and hopefully the recruits are too.”

Another aspect of collegiate tennis that flies under the radar is just how dominant the SEC is. For comparison’s sake, the SEC had seven teams in the past year’s final top 25, compared to 10 teams currently in the top 25 in men’s tennis. Three of the top four teams in women’s tennis are of the SEC as well. The competitive play allows prospective athletes to compete against the best the nation has to offer.

“I still want to go pro after college,” Georgia freshman Ben Wagland said. “I knew if I came here I’d have a better chance because this program is usually in the top five in the country.”

And therein lies the beauty of being a national powerhouse. Similar to most collegiate sports, due to the nature of recruiting, the rich tend to get richer. Since the time of Georgia legendary coach Dan Magill (who won two national championships in 1985 and 1987), the Bulldogs have remained at the top of collegiate tennis. And while having the nicest facilities, location and conference are nice, the real secret to Georgia’s success has been the coaches.

“I heard from many different people that Georgia was a great tennis program, and that they’ve achieved a lot over the history,” South Africa native Hernus Pieters said. “I think that does have an influence, but when I came here it was more so meeting the coaches.”

Sophomore Nathan Pasha agreed, especially in his situation where he didn’t really consider collegiate tennis until the age of 17.

“I never seriously considered it (going somewhere other than Georgia),” Pasha said. “I didn’t know a lot about college, except I knew Georgia had a good tennis program and I knew the coaches. I just felt like Georgia was the place to be.”

Wagland is originally from Australia, and yet after talking with Georgia coaches he decided it was where he should go.

“I didn’t look at that many schools,” Wagland said. “I looked at a couple in Los Angeles (USC and UCLA) and I visited Texas, but I came here mainly because of the coaches, and knowing them a couple of years before college.”

Coach Diaz (581-121, .828 winning percentage) is one of two active men’s coaches with multiple national championships (the other being USC’s Peter Smith). Diaz’s teams won the championship in 1999, 2001, 2007 and 2008, including accomplishing the rare triple crown of tennis in 2001 when Georgia’s Matias Boecker also won the singles title and teamed up with Travis Parrott for the doubles title. No other team in men’s tennis history can match the Bulldogs historic run of 11 straight top-5 finishes from 1989-1999 under Diaz.

“The kids know that we improve players,” Diaz said. “Being able to take players and make them better and have an atmosphere where they know they are going to compete for titles while they are here is our biggest attraction.”

 

Source: Red & Black

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