Jan. 20, 2006
The 2005-06 Notre Dame men’s tennis roster features both a group of players who are capable of taking their places among the nation’s elite, as well as a depth of talent to be envied by most teams. The Irish – who returned seven of eight starters from last year’s squad, which was one of the deepest in college tennis (no other team finished among the national top 45 without having a top-100 singles player or a ranked doubles team) – figured to have a good mix of talent and experience heading into the 84th season of varsity Irish tennis, and the fall portion of the campaign bore that out.
The first semester saw ND post a 6-1 win over 16-time national champion USC in an exhibition match and again use the ITA Midwest Championships to showcase its depth. That event featured an all-Irish final for the first time ever, and Notre Dame also was one of just two schools (along with 17-time national champion Stanford) to advance a pair of players (junior Stephen Bass and sophomore Sheeva Parbhu) to the final 16 in the ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Champion-ships, the season’s second grand-slam.
“I have mixed expectations for the season,” says Bayliss. “There’s a side of me that is really excited, but I also was excited midway through last spring and then was disappointed in the way we finished. But this probably has been the best fall we’ve ever had; we had a pretty dominating fall. I think a lot of guys were motivated, and one of the reasons in my mind was because we finished poorly last season.”
Notre Dame showed signs of becoming a top team once again in 2004-05. The Irish beat #18 North Carolina for the program’s 1,000th all-time victory and knocked off eventual NCAA quarterfinalist Florida State en route to their first 6-0 start since 1996-97. Notre Dame eventually peaked at 16th in the rankings, but then faded, losing in the opening round of the NCAAs and finishing 37th with an 18-8 record. The Irish did win their second consecutive BIG EAST title, a program first.
“We came out of the box quickly,” says Bayliss. “I thought we played at a high level at the beginning of the year, and I thought we had really built something that was going to sustain itself over the course of the year. But it was built on a fairly narrow foundation in that we had trouble winning at No. 1 most of the season, regardless of who was playing there. I think we all know that there were matches late in the year that were winnable that we didn’t win. I have no answers for that. I think our players were young and probably didn’t understand the toil and stress and the toll that the season would take on them. By the end of the year, some of them were worn out. I doubt that’s going to happen again.”
Senior captain Patrick Buchanan takes over the reins of leadership this season with an eye on avoiding last year’s troubles.
“Patrick is the ultimate example of achieving a great deal in a college sport,” says Bayliss. “He brings fire, commitment, resolve, and discipline to his role as our captain. You look at Patrick and you wonder what he’s doing out there – what that little sapling is doing in among the trees – but somehow he comes out of the pack every year. It would be interesting to see what he could do if we had a team of Roger Federer and Pete Sampras and four other guys like that, because Patrick has always been able to raise himself right up to whatever it takes. Hopefully, if our best guys play really well, it will force him to continue to do the same.”
Bass has positioned himself to be one of the elite players in college tennis in 2005-06, as he enters the spring portion of the campaign ranked #8 in the nation. He is just the third Notre Dame player ever to be listed among the top 10 nationally in singles. Bass had a breakthrough fall, going 13-1 with eight victories over nationally-ranked players. He became the first Irish player since 1993 to win the singles title in the ITA Midwest Championships and then matched the best result in program history by advancing to the quarterfinals of the season’s second grand slam, the ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships. Bass got his first taste of playing at the top of the lineup as a sophomore and has been an outstanding clutch player for Notre Dame. He holds a 14-3 career record in three-set matches, including 9-2 when the dual-match outcome is still undetermined.
“Stephen has really bought in and made some changes to his game,” says Bayliss. “He has taken away some liabilities and gone to another level. Watch out because the sky’s the limit with him if he continues what he has been doing. He has been, to date, one of the real surprises in college tennis this season. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit, because he’s made changes, and the results have followed.”
Junior Ryan Keckley of South Bend has been a key component in the Irish doubles lineup throughout his career, having already played 32 matches at No. 1. He led Notre Dame in doubles wins in dual-match action in 2004-05 with a 16-9 mark.
Parbhu joined Bass in making a quantum leap during the fall, as he went 11-2 with four victories over nationally-ranked players. The lone defeats for the sophomore – who will begin the spring ranked #14 – came against Bass in the final of the ITA Midwest Championships and then in the round of 16 of the National Indoors. He burst onto the scene as a freshman and went 32-7 in singles and was voted the team’s MVP. Parbhu was a near-automatic point, posting a 20-3 record in dual action at Nos. 3 and 4.
“Sheeva is already a leader, and he’s just a sophomore,” says Bayliss. “He’s a remarkable young man. I think Sheeva can be challenging for an NCAA title before he graduates. He’s benefited from the class ahead of him giving him some pretty good competition. He is tough enough on the court and really competes at a high level. He has made a lot of improvements in his game in the offseason. I’m excited to see what we’re going to get out of this guy. He can be a really great one. If you look where he is as a sophomore, only two players I’ve coached at Notre Dame were farther along at this point: David DiLucia and Ryan Sachire.”
Junior Barry King – a former national junior champion of Ireland – will return from his native land after spending the fall semester there, studying at University College in Dublin. He has been an integral part of Notre Dame’s success over the past two seasons, going 32-15 combined at Nos. 2-5. King was in the national singles rankings for much of his sophomore campaign, peaking at 100th. Last season, he came through twice in three-set affairs with the score tied 3-3 in the Blue-Gray National Tennis Classic.
“The fall away has been really good for him because Barry will probably want to live and work in Dublin when he graduates, and now he’s got a semester under his belt in one of the top colleges in Ireland to be able to show an employer his capabilities,” says Bayliss. “More importantly, he’s gotten to practice with some great players. He made a jump over the summer and is coming to the net more. You’re going to see a more-aggressive version of Barry King. He’s going to hit the ball big, and he’s going to close into the net. He has the potential to beat anyone in the country when he’s playing well. I’m looking for a breakout year from Barry.”
Freshman Brett Helgeson is expected to be one of the top freshmen in the country this season. He is the only current collegiate player who reached the quarterfinals of the 2005 USTA Super National Hardcourt Championships, as well as just the second Irish recruit ever to advance to the final eight of that event (along with DiLucia). He went undefeated (34-0) and won the Kansas state singles title a year ago and was listed 108th in the preseason national rankings, including fourth among freshmen.
“Brett has been a great addition,” says Bayliss. “Not only is he a terrific player, but he has really fit into the team framework here. His backhand may be the best single shot on the team. He has a huge serve, huge ground strokes, and a much-improved forehand. He simply hits the biggest ball on the team. He is learning to take advantage of those huge weapons and get up to the net. I think Brett can win an NCAA championship before he graduates. He’s as good as most any freshman that’s come into the Midwest in the last few years.”
With the depth of talent boasted by the Irish, the Nos. 5 and 6 spots in singles should be strengths. But that did not prove to be the case at all times in 2004-05, as No. 5 was ND’s second-worst spot in singles, with three players combining for a 15-10 mark. Who will be manning those slots this season is up in the air.
“We have to figure out what we are going to do with the bottom two positions,” says Bayliss. “Eric Langenkamp and Ryan Keckley both had really good falls. Patrick (Buchanan) is a guy who is like the Energizer Bunny – he just never stops running – and you tend to look at him and minimize what he can do because he’s short of stature, but he’s a great clutch player and he’s really expanded his game. Irackli Akhvlediani had the biggest wins of anyone in that group last year. He won against Virginia and Illinois, who were both in the top five at the time, so that was pretty good. Andrew Roth also is capable of playing at that level if he can remain healthy. I think we’ve got great options, and we just have to figure out whether two of them stand out or whether we rotate players in.”
Langenkamp is fresh off a breakthrough summer in which he had success in professional futures tournaments and ITA summer circuit events and then knocked off four of the top eight seeds en route to claiming the singles title in the ITA National Summer Championships, a Notre Dame first. That earned him a trip to the first leg of the collegiate grand slam in 2005-06, where he upset a top-20 player in consolation action. Langenkamp, who has a 17-9 career singles record in dual action, all at Nos. 5 and 6 (including 6-0 in ’04-05, all at the bottom spot), earned his first national ranking in the preseason and will head into the spring ranked 65th.
Keckley – a St. Joseph’s High School graduate who won the 2002 Indiana state singles championship – has seen sporadic singles action during his collegiate career, going 11-8, with all but two of those matches coming at the bottom two positions. He is 24-12 in his career in close sets (6-4, 7-5, 7-6).
Buchanan has been a contributor for the Irish throughout most of his career, posting a 25-18 mark in dual singles play in the bottom half of the lineup. As a junior, he became the fastest Irish player ever to post 20 victories in a season (improving to 20-2 on Jan. 29), en route to finishing 29-9. Buchanan has been a good clutch player for Notre Dame, going 11-9 in three-set matches, as well as 49-25 in close sets.
Akhvlediani earned a spot in the singles lineup last season, going 13-9 in dual action at Nos. 4 and 5. He went 26-14 overall in his sophomore season after seeing just limited action as a freshman.
Roth, who was the top-ranked 18-and-under player in Texas in the juniors, was plagued by injuries in his first collegiate season, including undergoing two minor eye surgeries. He went 9-3 during the fall of 2004. Doubles figures to be a key area of improvement for the Irish this season. After years of being a power in partnered play, Notre Dame has won the doubles point on 35 occasions over the past three seasons, while losing it 36 times. The Irish did show some improvement in 2004-05, winning it 15 times in 26 matches after losing more doubles points than they won in both of the previous two campaigns.
Keckley has the most high-level collegiate experience in doubles, having played 33 matches at No. 1 (16-16, one abandoned). The team leader in doubles dual-match victories in 2004-05 with a 16-9 mark at Nos. 1 and 2, he is 38-27 in his career in partnered play and will begin the spring ranked 12th nationally, along with Langenkamp. Langenkamp also has played eight matches at No. 1 and is 37-29 in his career. He led the Irish in doubles wins last year with 21. He and Parbhu were nationally ranked in doubles for a brief time last year, and the rookie went 20-14 overall, including 14-9 in dual play at Nos. 2 and 3. Bass and King both also have experience in the doubles lineup.
“Last year our doubles just never came together,” says Bayliss. “Part of the problem was individual team chemistry. We had to make some choices during the year that really weren’t in the best interest of the team. But combinations weren’t winning, so we switched people. We really don’t want to do that if we can help it. I am convinced we will be technically better in doubles – volleying better and making more first serves – but there are so many intangibles that remain to be seen. Figuring out where our doubles will be should be a big part of preseason practice.”
Freshman Santiago Montoya, a Colombian who has recently become a United States citizen, figures to immediately challenge for playing time in doubles. In the juniors, he won the doubles title at the 2005 USTA Spring National Championships and finished 2004 ranked 11th nationally in the USTA’s 18-and-under rankings in partnered play.
Sophomores Yuichi Uda and Brandon Pierpont also will continue their development this season. The former – who was ranked second among 18-and-under players in Japan prior to coming to Notre Dame – reached the singles round of 16 in the 2005 ITA National Summer Championships. Pierpont, who earned a spot on the Irish roster as a walk-on last season, is not expected to see action in 2005-06, but will continue to improve with an eye on the future.