2004 TCU Men's Tennis Season Preview
Jan. 23, 2004
When legendary coach Tut Bartzen retired following his 25th season in 1998, he finished with his only losing record at 11-13. While Bartzen may not have rode off into the sunset with a storybook ending, he did lay the foundation for what would be some highly successful years in the near future. His squad consisted primarily of freshmen who had to endure several growing pains by facing one of the nation's most arduous schedules. By the time they became seniors, they were prepared for anything and had the toughness necessary to be among the nation's elite.
Coach Michael Center, Bartzen's immediate predecessor, led the Horned Frogs to a 14-7 record and fell one point shy of reaching the NCAA Championships in 1999. The following season, the Purple and White fashioned a 22-5 slate and made an appearance in the national quarterfinals of the tournament. Current head coach Joey Rivé took a star-studded 2001 team, which finished 24-4, all the way to the NCAA Final Four, the third in school history, and a final national billing of fifth. Rivé knew the following year would see many hardships, as he lost six seniors and three All-Americans.
The pattern Rivé has witnessed with TCU is very similar to what happened beginning in 1998 with Bartzen's final season. The Horned Frogs were just below .500 in 2002 with an 11-12 ledger and made several strides last year to finish 16-9. TCU started last season rated No. 34 and finished 13 spots higher at No. 21, a true testament to how much the team improved throughout the campaign. Now, with only one senior departed from the 2003 squad and a veteran lineup returning in 2004, the Horned Frogs appear to be coming full circle once again and ready to charge back into the NCAA Championships.
"Our goals are to win the conference and get back to the NCAA Championships," said Rivé. "We have a lot of momentum heading into this year. We want to continue to improve. It's very easy to focus on winning and losing, but my focus is that we keep getting better individually. I want our guys to not only be better tennis players but better citizens when they leave TCU."
Because of the level his players have reached, Rivé contends that there is not much technical work to be done with the Frogs. Their games have matured through the years and each of them knows what style of play they are best suited to use. Getting in lots of reps and making minor adjustments will be part of practice, but the primary focus figures to be conditioning.
"The greatest emphasis in practice is on conditioning and getting in the best shape possible," Rivé stated. "That's the best way for someone to improve. The fall is over and we're in playing mode right now. Keeping everyone fit is the top goal."
The squad's senior leader Alex Menichini has never stopped being in playing mode. He competed in several professional events over the summer and during the fall season, which limited his collegiate matches. Menichini has been a fixture in the Horned Frogs' lineup since transferring from Fresno State after his freshman year with the Bulldogs. The Calabasas, Calif., native looks to defend the No. 1 singles position again this season after going 9-10 there a year ago. He entered the fall rankings at No. 47 and will start the spring rated No. 44.
"Alex had a strong fall," Rivé said. "He probably could've done a little better, but he spent some time playing pro events so that he'll be better prepared after this season. Alex has a goal to play professionally. As a player and a leader, he's improving daily. He's on the cusp of being one of the top 10 players in the country. If he can luck out a match or tough out a situation it could elevate him into that category."
The fact that Menichini will play No. 1 singles again is a story in and of itself. As a freshman at Fresno State, he was primarily a No. 5 or 6 competitor, and when Menichini faced former Frog Daniel Wajnberg at five in the WAC Championship, he fell easily to the Brazilian. Coming to TCU, Rivé knew that Menichini was a good addition to his team, but he never envisioned him achieving the success that he has.
"When Alex first got here, I could see that he hit the ball cleanly," recalled Rivé. "He worked his butt off in practice, and I felt like he was a good guy for the team. I knew he could be in the mix, but I didn't think he could play one. Then I saw how much he wanted it. Alex has really progressed, and when you give him advice, it actually means something to him and he uses it to improve."
The Purple and White picked up another transfer from the Bulldogs' squad for this spring as well in senior Hector Almada, a native of Hermosillo, Mexico. Almada played one season for Fresno City College, where he went 35-3 in singles, before transferring to FSU. He displayed the ability to play high in the lineup during his first year and last season he competed exclusively at No. 1 singles, going 14-10 at the slot and 23-13 overall. Almada possesses a blistering serve and is a specialist in the doubles arena. He came in ranked No. 6 in the nation in the fall doubles ratings and was also No. 76 in singles. The right-hander looks to play No. 2 or 3 singles this season and two or three doubles.
"We are very fortunate to have Hector with us this spring," said the fourth-year head coach. "We knew he was interested in transferring, and he fell in love with the school when he came for a visit. He was playing No. 1 singles at Fresno State, so he has a lot of experience and can play very high in our lineup. Hector is a big hitter and has a lot of talent. If he's on his game he can beat anybody.
"With him, we also have the chance to form three very good doubles teams. I don't know whom he'll play with right now. Having Hector gives us someone that is a leader in doubles."
Junior Fabrizio Sestini returns ready to have a breakout season after showing considerable improvement last year. A native of Rome, Italy, Sestini showcased his abilities during his freshman year by snagging some victories over top-ranked opponents but inconsistency saw him finish with an 11-14 record. He pieced together a 19-10 singles record and went 14-6 in dual match play. He settled into the No. 3 spot and is a likely candidate for the same position this season.
"Fabrizio really matured last summer and during the fall," Rivé said. "Even though he didn't have some good results early in the fall, he made up for it in the end with his performance in doubles and singles at the ITA Regional. He has shown some good leadership qualities, and I'm really pleased with his attitude and development. Fabrizio has the game and opportunity to play as high in the lineup as he wants."
Rounding out the junior ranks is Jacob Martin, who is the only remaining member of Rivé's original class that he brought in during fall 2001. Martin, a tall 6-foot-3 power server, turned in a solid performance for TCU last season by going 10-4 in duals. It was a solid turnaround for the Spaniard after experiencing an up-and-down year as a rookie. He was unbeaten at six singles with a 3-0 record and posted a 5-2 showing one spot above at No. 5. Martin will most likely battle with Scholten for a chance to play at six singles in 2004.
"Jacob had a pretty solid fall season," Rivé remarked. "He still needs to commit to the game at a higher level, but I like what I've seen as far as his mental approach. Jacob certainly has the talent to do whatever he wants. I'm looking for him to fight for an opportunity to be in the thick of the lineup."
While the sophomore class at TCU is limited to only two players, both of them will be keys to the team's success. Like Sestini and Scholten as freshmen, they were late arrivals to the roster and were immediately expected to play. Combined, they posted a record of 37-9 for the Purple and White last spring and were 32-9 in dual matches.
The first of the duo, Rafael Abreu, stormed onto the college scene by winning the Rice Indoors in his first time donning the purple. In duals, he played as high as No. 3, but carved out a niche at six singles, where he finished 9-2. Abreu had some bright spots in the fall, particularly in doubles with Sestini, and could play anywhere between Nos. 4-6 this spring.
"Rafael had a great start this fall," said Rivé. "I was hoping he would do a little better at the ITA All-American. Rafael is a guy that the more he matures and understands the game and college, the better off he'll be. He'll make incremental improvements every year and has a lot of upside. We'll work on getting him into better shape and then we'll have something special."
Jacopo Tezza, Sestini's countryman from Verona, is the other half of the sophomore class. Tezza did not have the luxury that Abreu enjoyed by playing in a tournament before the dual match season. It seemed to have little effect, though, as he wound up with a 17-4 slate on the year. Tezza was shuffled all through the bottom half of the lineup and proved time after time that he possessed the necessary tools to compete at any position. Rivé will most likely use the Italian in a similar capacity this season.
"Jacopo had a great fall," Rivé said. "He gave a tremendous effort at the ITA All-American and came very close to beating some nationally ranked players. Jacopo had a heck of a match against Johan Brunstrom from SMU in the ITA Regional. He still needs to work on his temper because it tends to get him into trouble. He has the potential to be a great college player. He'll probably play in the range of Nos. 4-6 singles, but there's no reason he can't play higher. Jacopo doesn't have the big game but he has the heart. He's always a very tough out."
Five freshmen are among the Horned Frogs' roster, however, two of them redshirted last year. Collin Hart and Craig Stopa used their first year at TCU as an opportunity to adjust to college and hone their tennis skills. Hart and Stopa each saw playing time in several tournaments during the fall.
"Collin has always been a great team player," Rivé commented. "He's improved quite a bit and he could emerge as a doubles player with Craig in the future.
"Craig does a great job for us by setting the academic standards. He continues to improve and played some good matches for us in the fall. I can't say enough good things about him. He's definitely a success story."
Robert Gallman and Andrew Ulrich, who both entered TCU in the fall, saw a favorable amount of tournament action right away. Prior to becoming a Horned Frog, Gallman helped St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Dallas win the SPC Championship his freshman year before attending Pendleton High School in Florida. He picked up a Bronze Ball at the National Claycourts as a junior and played for Texas' Junior Davis Cup team. Gallman was ranked in the top-30 in the U.S. 14s, the top-60 in the 16s and the top-50 for the 18s. He held the No. 1 rating for the Texas 18s in 2002 and has experience playing in over 30 international tournaments.
"I felt like Robert started well in the fall," said Rivé. "He showed a lot at the Baylor Intercollegiate, competing against some talented players. As the fall progressed, he became a little inconsistent, which is typical for a freshman. He came very close to beating a very good player (Esat Tarik from Texas Tech) at the ITA Regional. Robert will be a good player for us. I hope he'll be in the mix of getting in the lineup. He'll continue to improve throughout the spring and work heavily on his serve and net game."
Ulrich played his high school tennis at Wichita Falls High School and was named the team's Most Valuable Player following his junior and senior years. He was a two-time state finalist in singles and at one point in his career was ranked No. 14 in the nation in doubles with current teammate Hart. Ulrich was also ranked in the top-140 in singles during his junior days.
"Andrew learned a lot this fall," Rivé said. "He worked on his volley and serve a lot. He could be a factor for us down the road. Andrew is a great competitor and comes from a good family history with regard to tennis. I don't see him being in the lineup this season but he could be next year if he keeps fighting and continues to improve."
TCU's final freshman this season is Swedish superstar Tobias Virdhage, who came to Cowtown in the spring. Virdhage is a four-time Swedish champion, claiming the Under-21 titles and the Under-18 crowns. He has registered victories over some of the best in the world, including 2002 ITA All-American Championships winner Daniel Klemetz of Middle Tennessee State.
"Tobias hasn't played a lot of pro events," Rivé explained. "The few he did play, he performed well and beat some top-200 players in the world. He's been playing for his club back home and doing a great job. Tobias has a high level game. He'll be one of our better players for years to come after Alex is gone."
After going through many woes in doubles during the 2002 campaign, last season saw TCU display a vast improvement in the area. The Frogs went from a 25-40 record at all three slots in 2002 to 37-31 to following season. This year, the doubles play should be even better and teams may find themselves hard-pressed to pick up an early 1-0 lead.
"When it comes to building a team like we had to after 2001, we had to create a base," said Rivé. "In the beginning, there were a few good doubles players but not six. Now when we recruit someone, we bring in guys that are not just good singles but solid doubles players as well."
Sestini and Abreu are penciled in as the No. 1 team to start the year. At two, the combination of Almada and Menichini is a likely possibility, although, Martin or Tezza could both team up with Almada as well. The No. 3 hole is still a toss up and could consist of Martin and Tezza, and Gallman could find himself paired with one of the two as well. TCU's depth is what Rivé is counting on to come through for his team in 2004.
"Doubles is cyclical," said the leader of the Purple and White. "It's a matter of getting hot and cold in a pro set. We still don't have a doubles team that is a true No. 1, but we'll beat teams with our depth."
In keeping with TCU's longstanding tradition of a top-notch schedule, Rivé and the Horned Frogs have 21 tough regular season dual matches on tap for 2004. Thirteen of the squads the Frogs will face competed in the NCAA Tournament last May and they could potentially play 16 teams that concluded 2003 ranked among the top-75. TCU came in at No. 18 in the preseason rankings and three of its opponents in Baylor, Duke and Texas A&M are ranked Nos. 2, 8 and 9 to start off.
"We have another great schedule," said Rivé. "We play quite a few teams at home to start the spring, which is fortunate for us. There will be a lot of tests for us throughout the season. We have some good opposition and I'm looking forward to a great season this year."
Before its first dual match Jan. 24 versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in Fort Worth, TCU will host an exhibition match with the University of Sterling (Scotland) Jan. 20 on the Bernard J. "Tut" Bartzen Varsity Courts at the Bayard H. Friedman Tennis Center at 1:30 p.m. The Frogs' match-up with the Islanders is scheduled for a noon start time.
The Texas A&M-Corpus Christi match marks the first of nine consecutive home contests for TCU. During the span, TCU will face SMU (Feb. 4 at 1:30 p.m.), Texas-Arlington (Feb. 11 at 1:30 p.m.), Colorado (Feb. 15 at noon), Texas A&M (Feb. 18 at 1:30 p.m.), Florida State (Feb. 22 at noon) and South Alabama (Feb. 24 at 1:30 p.m.). TCU will play two matches when it hosts the Conference USA Shootout (Feb. 27-29).
The intraconference shootout is one of two such events featuring six of the 12 C-USA institutions that sponsor men's tennis. Tulane will serve as the host for the other half of the affair. The top two teams in each tournament receive first-round byes and each team is guaranteed to play a minimum of two matches. TCU and Louisville snagged the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds for the Horned Frogs' tourney, while Tulane and USF did likewise for the Green Wave's portion of the event. Other squads traveling to Cowtown include Charlotte, DePaul, East Carolina and Marquette. The schedule of play is as follows:
Friday, Feb. 27
Saturday, Feb. 28
Sunday, Feb. 29
Following a week of rest, the Frogs hit the road for their first away match, as they compete in the Arizona State Shootout over March 7-8. Other squads competing in the event include Arizona State, Pepperdine and Washington. The winners from each of the two March 7 matches will play the second day, while the losers will square off in the other contest.
TCU will head to Tulsa, Okla., March 13 to face the Golden Hurricane at 1 p.m. and then return home for a pair of matches with Miami (Fla.) and Boise State March 17 and 20 at 2 p.m. and noon. A Match 22 date with Texas Tech in Lubbock awaits the Frogs following the homestand before they host Rice March 25 at 2 p.m. The Horned Frogs then head south on I-35 to Waco to take on Baylor, who reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament last season and finished with a national ranking of No. 4.
Four matches in April are on the ledger for the Purple and White, the first of which features Duke April 2 in Durham, N.C., at 3 p.m. Two days later, TCU makes a stop in Charlottesville, Va., to tangle with Virginia at 11 a.m. and then returns home to host Louisiana-Lafayette April 7 at 2 p.m. The regular season draws to a close in Dallas in the second meeting of the year with cross-town rival SMU April 10 at noon.
The University of Memphis will host the C-USA Tournament over April 15-18. TCU faltered in the event in its first season with the league as the tourney's No. 1 seed and last year the Purple and White reached the championship match and was ousted by Tulane. The usual suspects in the league-TCU, Tulane and USF-should make a run at the conference crown once again and there could be some others that come out of the woodwork to make things a little more interesting.
"USF got a good transfer from Kentucky (Karim Benmansour) and they didn't lose anybody," acknowledged Rivé. "Tulane is always dangerous, especially with Michael Kogan in his senior year. Louisville is always scrappy and UAB will be a little better than they were last season, as will Memphis."
The NCAA Regionals will be played from May 15-16 at selected campus locations that will be announced once the draw for the 64-team field has been determined. The University of Tulsa's Michael D. Case Tennis Center will host the NCAA Championships May 22-31. The championships include the final four rounds of the team competition and the 64-person and 32-team singles and doubles tournaments.
Rivé is hoping that the Frogs will make their presence felt at the individual NCAAs this year after a two-year hiatus. The 2001 NCAA Championships marked TCU's last appearance when Trace Fielding represented the Purple and White in singles and doubles with Jimmy Haney. Fielding reached the second round in singles and became an All-American with Haney by landing in the quarterfinals of doubles.
"I think Alex can get there," Rivé contended. "I'd like to get three guys in the singles tournament and send at least one doubles team, maybe even two."
With so much talent gracing the courts on TCU's campus, there is no limit to what this year's crop of Horned Frogs can accomplish. The Purple and White is certain to add more lore and exploits to a program already endowed with a bevy of tradition and excellence.