Jan. 14, 2009
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The 2009 men’s tennis dual season gets underway as the Irish play host to #14 Pepperdine on Friday, January 16. There is a large amount of excitement surrounding the program with the overall cause for excitement derived from the fact that a season ago, with a lineup that typically featured freshmen in the bottom three positions, the Irish captured Notre Dame’s seventh BIG EAST Tournament title and advanced to the NCAA Championships for the 17th time in 18 seasons. With strong play from the No. 1 position and more depth throughout the rest of the lineup, the Irish are poised to equal their success from a season ago and move past the first round of the NCAAs. The team enters the dual season at 30th in the ITA rankings.
Senior Brett Helgeson will lead the Irish, who enters the dual season at 20th in the ITA rankings, at the top of the lineup, as he will play at No. 1 singles for the second consecutive season. He is coming off a fall season in which he became the first Irish player since 2000 to advance to the round of 16 at the ITA All-American Championships while also making it to the quarterfinal round of the ITA Midwest Regional. During his junior campaign he was named the Most Outstanding Performer at the 2008 BIG EAST tournament and advanced out of the round of 64 in the NCAA Individual Championship. He went 31-10 in singles play a year ago, and posted a 16-9 mark in dual play.
Another reason optimism abounds is because last year’s freshmen, who were instrumental in the success of a season ago, are now sophomores; and as head coach Bob Bayliss is quick to point out, “the old adage is the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” In sophomores David Anderson, Tyler Davis, Stephen Havens and Daniel Stahl, Bayliss has four players who have been through the rigors of a collegiate tennis season and know what to expect as the 2008-09 season gets underway. The classmates combined to post 38 dual singles wins. After a strong fall season, Stahl has worked himself into the individual ITA rankings (112th) for the first time in his career. Bayliss is no stranger to success with teams that feature only one dominant senior, as his 1992 squad finished as NCAA runners-up with only David DiLucia as a senior starter.
But overcoming the loss of two starters, last year’s No. 2, Sheeva Parbhu, and No. 3, Andrew Roth, will not be easy, as the duo combined for 49 starts and 24 wins in dual matches. Combined with Helgeson at No. 1, the Irish had a veteran feel to the top of their lineup that enabled them to pull out many close matches.
Parbhu, a 2006 All-American, finished his career with 121 singles wins, including 27 last season as part of a great one-two combination with Helgeson atop of Irish lineup. He was named to the BIG EAST all-tournament team in both singles and doubles play a season ago and finished with a 27-13 overall record in singles action, including a 17-8 mark in dual matches. Parbhu ranks fifth all-time in singles wins and is tied for seventh in doubles wins with 76. Parbhu also added four match-clinching victories last season, giving him 16 for his career, the most in Notre Dame history. Roth was a solid starter for the Irish over the past three seasons. Aside from his contributing seven singles wins last season at the No. 3 position, Roth put together a 26-12 overall record in singles as a junior, including an 18-7 mark in dual matches. But with the departures of Roth and Parbhu, there will be an increased amount of competition for places in the lineup and such competition on a daily basis could go a long way in getting the Irish prepared for the upcoming dual match season.
Notre Dame should also be able to take advantage of its depth to secure a large amount of wins from the fourth, fifth and sixth positions. Although the Irish may not be able to replace the experience of Roth and Parbhu at the top, the Irish are such a deep team that they should be able replace Roth and Parbhu’s respective win totals throughout the lineup.
Another way in which Notre Dame is looking to improve its point total at dual matches is by focusing on doubles play, and Bayliss is no stranger to success there. With Bayliss at the helm, Notre Dame has sent 13 tandems to the NCAA Doubles Championship, including one duo that made it to the semifinals, and has won four ITA Midwest Regional doubles championships. Bayliss and his staff have developed a specific doubles game plan that focuses on a high first serve percentage and stressing the importance of intelligent movement to the net. It may be too early to predict which players will work best together in 2009, but, as Bayliss sees it, “Brett can dominate a doubles match and a lot of our younger guys are really starting to understand how to play intelligently in doubles.” In fact, Helgeson and Davis are 37th in the ITA doubles rankings.
Every point will become that much more important for the Irish in 2009, because they expect to be in a lot of tightly contested matches as they try to overcome one of the toughest schedules in the country. “In my time at Notre Dame, I have not seen a tougher schedule,” said Bayliss. “We come back [from winter break] and open with Pepperdine, a recent NCAA Champion , at home and just go from there.” In fact, two of Notre Dame’s next three opponents after Pepperdine include Virginia, a 2008 NCAA semifinalist, and Florida State, who made it to the Round of 16 in NCAA play last season. Seven of Notre Dame’s 2009 opponents are currently ranked in the top-20, including first-ranked Ohio State and fifth-ranked Virginia.
With such a challenging schedule and a young team, there will inevitably be challenges as the dual season unfolds. But playing such a slate will allow for growth and development that will be evident throughout this season and into the next. “The reason for playing such a difficult schedule is that I believe you can’t reach your potential without being pushed … with so many young players here we will reap the benefits of this heightened competition for the next two years,” said Bayliss.
To shepherd the young lineup through the grueling schedule, Bayliss will rely on his senior class of Helgeson and Santiago Montoya. While Helgeson is more of a leader by example, Montoya will be charged with providing a presence for the younger players to learn from. Having been a part of the Irish lineup for four years now, and making nearly every trip, Montoya’s veteran poise should prove indispensable, not to mention that he is a highly regarded doubles player due to his ability to finish points at the net.
Though the Irish will play one of the most challenging schedules in the country, Bayliss and his staff are more than comfortable with the character and depth of their lineup. Success will not be easy in 2009, but, when striving to be considered one of the best teams in the nation, it shouldn’t be. With a core group of eight players vying for singles starts, Notre Dame’s depth is sure to give other teams match-up difficulties.
— ND —