Nov. 17, 2003
Following an uncharacteristically disappointing 2002-03 season, Notre Dame head coach Bob Bayliss is eager to put that campaign in the history books and concentrate on the promise of a new season. The fire that burns inside the two-time national coach of the year is especially bright, as he is driven by a desire to revisit the successes that have become routine throughout his career.
“When you have something taken away from you, you want to fight twice as hard to get it back,” says Bayliss. “We worked for a pretty long time to establish ourselves as a national presence. We really want to get that back. I think the memory of last season will refocus and reenergize us this year. It certainly made us more hungry.”
Leading the effort to return Notre Dame to its familiar position amongst the nation’s elite are six returning monogram winners, including each of the top three players from last year’s squad. That trio will serve as the tri-captains of the 2003-04 Irish, and will face the task of integrating one of the top freshman classes in the Bayliss era into a group featuring already-established and up-and-coming veterans.
Seniors Luis Haddock and Matthew Scott will be back for their second year as captains and will be joined by junior Brent D’Amico.
“I felt a year ago, (fellow tri-captain) Brian (Farrell) was a senior and, thus, Luis and Matt sort of held back and deferred to him in some situations,” says Bayliss. “This year, I expect them to be more assertive. Brent really emerged as a leader last year and in his own very quiet way, he set a precedent for leadership. I wasn’t surprised to see him elected as a captain, though it is unusual for a junior to take on this mantle.”
The three captains figure to play at the top of the singles and doubles lineups for the second consecutive season. A year ago, Haddock moved into the No. 1 singles and No. 2 doubles positions and had a great deal of success, leading the team in singles wins with a 21-14 record. He is listed 64th in the preseason ITA national singles rankings and has a dozen career victories over ranked opponents to go along with his outstanding 71-30 career mark.
Luis Haddock compiled a 71-30 singles record, including a dozen victories over ranked opponents.
“Luis is as talented an athlete as we have,” says Bayliss of the three-time member of the Puerto Rican Davis Cup team. “One of his assets is speed; he can get to anything on the court. I want him to refocus his game plan on the court to be more aggressive. He needs to get to the net more and use more of the court. Luis needs to define a role for himself on the court. He can be a fierce competitor at times. When he makes up his mind to go for his shots, Luis can be really good.”
After playing primarily No. 5 singles and seeing doubles action in only three dual matches in 2001-02, Scott made a successful jump in the lineup a year ago, playing No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles all season. In singles, he dropped his first three contests of the spring before rebounding to go 10-5 the remainder of the year.
“Matt began to make a transition a year ago,” says Bayliss. “He started to play up in the court more. He started to take the ball on the rise. He started to get to the net a little bit. I really like that he has a plan, and he knows what he is trying to do to get there.”
Scott has a 64-26 career mark in singles, but his doubles performance was even more notable last year, as he and D’Amico paired together to go 12-9 at No. 1. The pair earned its first national ranking this fall, being listed 49th in the preseason survey.
The junior tri-captain was perhaps the brightest spot for the Irish a year ago. After playing singles in just four dual matches as a freshman – all at No. 6 – he made the jump to No. 3 and responded by opening the spring with six consecutive victories en route to earning team MVP honors. After gaining his first career national singles ranking last year, he is 99th heading into ’03-04. D’Amico will face an added hurdle this season, he underwent elbow surgery in June ’03, which will cause him to miss a portion of the fall schedule.
“The first thing Brent has to do is get over his elbow surgery,” says Bayliss. “But he did work very hard this summer on some things he could do off the court. I look for his two-handed backhand to be improved because he hit thousands of left-handed forehands, which really are the key to a two-handed backhand. I predict a breakout year for Brent.”
D’Amico is not the only player the Irish mentor foresees surprising people this season. His first response to a query regarding his expectations for the season is, “I expect the freshman class to impact our lineup.”
That freshman class consists of five established junior players with diverse backgrounds, who figure to play an immediate role in Notre Dame’s fortunes. Entering his 34th season as a collegiate head coach, Bayliss has recruited a lot of players, and he thinks this group is one of the best he has ever landed.
“The combination of the ability and depth of this group make it, on paper, the second-best class I have ever had,” says Bayliss. “It is very close to the class that graduated in 1993, which had six top players that all started as seniors and reached the NCAA final as juniors. Those guys were unique in their ability to come in as freshmen and establish themselves right away.”
One of the first-year players who Bayliss expects to make an immediate impact is Stephen Bass, who was the 11th-ranked player in the July ’03 USTA 18-and-under national junior rankings, including fifth among freshmen entering college. He had an outstanding summer, earning six ATP points in a futures event in Tampa, Fla., by reaching the singles quarterfinals and doubles semifinals before delivering a runner-up finish in the National Clay Court Championships.
“Stephen made a big breakthrough this summer in the National Clay Courts,” says Bayliss. “He established himself as one of the prominent U.S. 18-and-under players. I think he has the ability to be an impact freshman. He is as tough an out as you’ll ever see. He hates to lose, and you really have to drive a stake through his heart to beat him. He’s your worst nightmare on the court. I think he is going to absolutely thrive in college tennis. Stephen will be a better player in dual matches than he will be in tournaments because he wants to be the last guy left on the court with the match on the line. I am so excited to have him here.”
Brent D’Amico posted an 11-7 record at No. 3 singles in 2002-03, highlighted by a six-match winning streak to start the spring.
Another player Bayliss expects big things from is Barry King, the reigning 18-and-under national champion of Ireland, who has not lost a juniors match in his home country since January of 2001.
“Barry is the number one junior in Ireland and has already beaten some good college players,” says Bayliss. “I expect him to have the ability to come in and be an impact freshman. He has played at a high enough level to contribute here. He will just need to become comfortable here and make the transition. He shouldn’t have any trouble finding people who love that he is Irish!”
Though Bayliss normally does not have a bevy of foreign players on his roster, King is not the only non-American in the class of 2007. Irackli Akhvlediani is a native of the Republic of Georgia, where he has played on its Davis Cup team. He now lives in Vienna and is one of the top 40 players in Austria.
“Irackli is an aggressive baseliner with a tendency toward becoming an all-court player,” says Bayliss. “He is left-handed and has an aggressive forehand with the ability to create lots of spin. He seems to be more organized and more disciplined at this point in his career in his approach to things than anybody I’ve ever coached. I think Irackli is really going to be a pleasant surprise; he’s someone no one has heard of, but is capable of having a good year.”
The diversity of the freshman class is seen no better than by the fact that its players a year ago were playing everywhere from faraway lands to in the shadow of the Golden Dome. St. Joseph High School graduate and ’03 Indiana state singles champion Ryan Keckley is another of the quintet that plans to make an impact on this year’s Irish.
“Ryan is an unpolished gem and is a terrific team player.” says Bayliss. “I’ve watched him in tournaments and in team matches. During the team matches, he is constantly talking to his teammates, encouraging and prodding them. His doubles play is very advanced for a freshman, and I expect him to make immediate contributions in that area. I feel really fortunate to have him here.”
Rounding out the class is Bobby McNally, who won state titles in both singles and doubles against top competition in Florida.
“Bobby is a left-hander with a big first serve and the ability to really use that wide serve,” says Bayliss. “He works the point really well and understands how to construct a point, he is going to fight for playing time.”
In addition to the first-year competitors, there are also a number of returnees eager to make a greater impact this season. Leading the way is sophomore Patrick Buchanan, who stepped into the singles lineup immediately a year ago. After gaining experience in some pressure matches in 2003, he could be an important factor this season.
“Patrick, at times, was a real warrior for us last year,” says Bayliss. “He loves the heat of the battle and relishes his ability to compete in tight situations. There are a few technical adjustments he has been working on. If we can get him to make those, with the way he competes and his God-given ability, he could have a really good year.”
Another sophomore, Eric Langenkamp, was on the edge of the singles lineup last season. After a strong summer, he figures to be in the mix again.
“Eric has a great ability to see the whole court,” says Bayliss. “He is playing chess out there all the time. I kid him by saying he is playing 45-and-older tennis – those guys are always really cagey on the court. He already has that quality, while most kids his age just worry about bludgeoning the ball.”
Two other players got into the lineup at times in 2003 and will be looking to play an increased role in the future. Senior Ben Hatten played doubles in 13 matches, while junior Jimmy Bass saw time in singles twice.
Senior Paul Hidaka and juniors Peter Graham and Nick Chimerakis also have made strides and will battle to make the lineup.
“In terms of the talent level, it is superior to what we have had in awhile,” says Bayliss of his roster. “I think we will be deeper than we have been. I think we have realistically nine or 10 candidates to play singles, and doubles is wide open. That should energize the whole team. Everyone is going to be scrambling and fighting for positions. I think there is enough talent on this squad that if everything falls into place, we can be a top-25 team.”
Despite some question marks, Bayliss remains optimistic: “Each of us in our different professions likes to think we are something of an artist. We all want to paint a beautiful canvas. I think I’ve got a lot of colors on my easel this year. The responsibility is mine to utilize them properly.”