by Eric Wachter
The 2001-02 Notre Dame men’s tennis hopes to continue its progression through regression. Last year the Irish won the prestigious Blue-Gray National Tennis Classic and returned to the top 10 of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association – both for the first time since 1993 when Notre Dame last reached the NCAA championship quarterfinals.
Now the Irish look to regress another year and emulate the 1992 team that still remains the only Northern school to reach the NCAA final since the team format was introduced in 1977.
“We have the depth, talent and drive that the 1992 and 1993 teams showed,” says 15th-year head coach Bob Bayliss, now in his 33rd year as a collegiate head coach.
“We were just a few points from having a spectacular season last year, and the lessons we learned from those matches will prove to be invaluable this year. We are really confident about our chances for having a memorable year.”
Last year Notre Dame needed to replace three-time All-American and four-year No. 1 singles player Ryan Sachire. This year, with the starting lineup returning nearly intact and with the addition of another talented freshman class, Bayliss and the Irish may indeed be in for a memorable campaign – one they hope will culminate at the NCAA team championships at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.
After sharing team MVP honors last year, Casey Smith will serve as team captain for the 2001-02 Irish.
“Casey is such a great fighter on the court and will be a great leader for the team,” says Bayliss.
Leading the charge yet again will be Notre Dame’s class of 2002 – now seasoned seniors that have braved the 4-3 battles for three years and are poised for a breakthrough year. In addition to Smith, seniors Aaron Talarico, Javier Taborga, Andrew Laflin and James Malhame bring a wealth of experience to the lineup
Smith faced the difficult task of replacing Sachire last year at No. 1 singles and performed well after playing at mostly No. 3 singles in his first two seasons. Smith started the dual-match season with a 6-1 record and wins over highly ranked regional players against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. He finished the season with a career-best ranking of 65th in the ITA rankings. Always one of the team’s fastest and most athletic players, Smith has added the ability to finish points at the net to his game.
“With a year of facing the top players in the country at No. 1 singles under his belt, Casey is poised to become of the country’s top collegiate players this year,” says Bayliss. “He will, however, receive great competition from Javier, Aaron, and Luis. All have proven themselves.”
Taborga should play hight in the lineup once again after playing in all but one of the team’s matches at No. 2 singles. He compiled a 5-3 record against ranked opponents and flashed exciting flair in his game at times last year. The left-handed Taborga took out the top-seeded, third-ranked and defending champion K.J. Hippensteel of Stanford in the second round of the ITA All-American Championships in October. His big serve and forehand highlight the strengths of his ever-maturing all-court game.
“Nagging injuries have slowed Javier in dual matches the last two years so we’re hopeful that he’ll able to sustain the level of play he showed at the All-American,” says Bayliss.
Talarico posted the team’s best dual-match singles record last year with his 16-4 mark, including a 15-2 slate at No. 4 singles. He always seemed be in the thick of things as five of his 16 wins clinched team victories. Twice Talarico won the final match at 3-3 against Baylor and Indiana State. One of the hardest working players on the team, he has improved his ability to finish points at the net.
“Aaron is capable of playing higher in the lineup and is one of our fiercest competitors on the court,” says Bayliss.
For two years Taborga and Talarico have speared the Irish doubles lineup, making a pair of NCAA doubles championship appearances after successful seasons at No. 1 doubles. The duo became the first Irish pair since 1994 to reach the semifinals of an ITA grand slam event last year at the ITA All-American Championships and finished the season as the 20th-ranked pair.
Malhame came on at the end of the year to team with Smith at No. 2 doubles. With a great instinct for doubles, Malhame also boasts some of the best volleying skills on the team. Bayliss expects Malhame to return for a senior year with a more consistent serve – a serve that dominated doubles matches at times last year.
Despite the successes of the top two teams late in the season Bayliss is not convinced he has found the most formidable doubles formula.
“One of our biggest disappointments last year was that we were never able to establish any consistency in doubles,” says Bayliss.
“We weren’t a bad doubles team last year, but doubles used to be a strength of our team. Last year it wasn’t, and we’ll enter the year with a clean slate. It might be to the team’s benefit to split Aaron and Javier in order to spread out the doubles talent and find the best combination of teams.”
Laflin should compete for a spot in the singles lineup after seeing action in just two matches at No. 6 singles, winning both. The southpaw was a fixture in the second half of the lineup in his first two years. A proven winner, he has continued to add firepower to a game that features the unique combination of consistency and playing balls on the rise.
“We expect Andrew to finish his senior year with a bang because he has really developed an all-court game to go with his steadiness,” says Bayliss.
Ashok Raju returns as a fifth-year student and looks to break into the doubles lineup on a consistent basis. He has played a handful of doubles matches in dual matches in the past two years and should benefit from the maturity that comes with a fifth year.
“Ashok’s improved consistency and shot selection could earn him a significant role in doubles, if not in singles,” says Bayliss.
Adrian Hidaka and Jimmy Rogers round out the senior class and look to add to the depth after steady improvement throughout their careers.
Brian Farrell stands out among the junior class with the 22 dual singles victories he has recorded in his first two seasons. He matched Talarico with a team-best 16 dual singles victories last year and showed his versatility in the lineup with a 5-0 mark at No. 4, 10-5 at No. 5 and 1-1 at No. 6. Seemingly unflappable on the court, Farrell has made great strides in developing an all-court game to complement his impressive backcourt game.
“Brian is adding punch to his serve to go with his already formidable groundstrokes in order to continue his climb up the singles lineup,” says Bayliss. “His transitional skills are rapidly improving.”
The pack of juniors Bryan Acken, Jake Cram, Tim Giattina, Chancey Martin and T Moss should be in the mix in 2002 and will be important in the future success of the team. They continue to develop their games and take advantage of the collegiate competition. Acken has showed great promise in singles, as has Cram in doubles.
A pair of sophomores played significant roles last year, while another pair continues to position themselves to make impacts in the future. Luis Haddock-Morales joined Taborga as one of the only players to compile at least 20 singles and 20 doubles wins last year. He anchored the No. 3 singles spot but also won matches at Nos. 2 and 4 singles. The combination of his speed and a strong forehand should make Haddock-Morales a four-year regular in the Irish lineup.
“Luis is one of the hardest workers on the team and will become one of the great players in collegiate tennis by the end of his career, if not sooner,” says Bayliss.
Matthew Scott, along with graduated senior Matt Daly, formed half of a one-two punch at No. 6 singles, as both players posted identical 7-1 marks at No. 6 singles. Scott also went 4-1 at No. 5 singles, gaining valuable dual-match experience. His game was polished from high school years spent in France, and he brings great court sense to the game.
“Matthew was a huge part of our success last year and is going to be an outstanding player for us for the next three years,” says Bayliss.
The talented sophomore pair of Ben Hatten and Paul Hidaka looks to gain more experience in anticipation of future contributions to the program. Hatten has great doubles skills, while Hidaka has excelled in singles.
A freshman class of both established and raw talent stands ready to bolster the roster. Jimmy Bass, Brent D’Amico and Philip Lem come to Notre Dame after successful junior careers and have earned impressive juniors rankings by the United States Tennis Association. A native of Luxembourg, Peter Graham will be more of unknown factor, while Paul McNaughton’s serve-and-volley game will be a great addition to the doubles mix.
“We are really excited to see how our freshmen will fit into the mix,” says Bayliss.
“They are the future of the program but certainly are capable of contributing immediately.”
The Irish will tackle a perennially tough schedule loaded with national and regional powers. After the fall individual season, the dual-match season starts on Jan. 19 and features trips to Duke, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana State and home matches versus Ohio State, Miami (Fla.), SMU and Kentucky. Notre Dame will defend its Blue-Gray title with its 13th appearance at the March event and looks to reclaim the BIG EAST in April.
“With our enviable combination of tremendous depth, talent and experience, we fully expect to be a fixture in the top 10 this year,” says Bayliss.
“Our sights are set on an impressive showing in the NCAAs hosted by Texas A&M in May.”