Jan. 18, 2018
By Joanne Norell
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Despite a youth-laden roster, the University of Notre Dame men’s tennis team is not looking too far into the future.
The Irish are interested in the right-now.
With the 2018 dual campaign set to begin Friday, Callaghan Family Head Men’s Tennis Coach Ryan Sachire is looking for immediate contributions not only from his established upperclassmen, but from the talented sophomores who saw significant playing time in 2017 and the sixth-rated freshman class that is likely to see plenty of court time in 2018.
“We’ve been preparing them for the long season that’s coming,” Sachire said. “We’ve got some younger guys on our team that are going to play some key roles for us ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ and we’re trying to set their mindset and achieve the right perspective in terms of how they’re going to approach these next five months. There are going to be plenty of good days and positives and we need to take as much confidence as we can from those situations, but there are probably going to be some down times too and we’re going to learn from them and be better because of those experiences.”
The Rise of Lebedev
Newly minted junior Irish co-captain Alex Lebedev will step into the No. 1 singles role this spring after gradually improving his national standing since the end of last season. In his first full season of play in 2017 after an injury kept him sidelined as a freshman, Lebedev turned in an 11-12 dual record last season playing primarily at the No. 3 spot.
Since then, he went on to win the ITA National Summer Championship and reached the round of 16 at both the ITA All-American Championships and the ITA National Fall Championships. He enters the spring with an 8-4 record (including 3-2 against ranked opponents) and a No. 45 national ranking, jumping 59 spots from his preseason ranking entering the fall.
In addition to his collegiate success, Lebedev also earned his first ATP points at a pair of ITF Futures events in California in early January.
“He had a really, really good beginning to last year’s dual match season and a really good end to last year’s dual match season, and I think he learned a lot during the season last year,” Sachire said. “He worked really hard over the summer and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ things really clicked for him. It’s a great testament to giving yourself as many opportunities as you can and if you keep working hard, great things can happen. Since that stage, he really hasn’t looked back. He had a great fall for us and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ he just continues to climb.”
The bulk of the Irish roster will come from its younger classes in 2018, with four freshmen and four sophomores making up the majority of the team. Of the team’s six upperclassmen, two juniors boast regular starting experience at both singles and doubles, while senior Brendon Kempin earned full-time doubles experience as a junior in 2017.
Because of his team’s youth, Sachire expects the requisite ups and downs that come with gaining experience.
“They’re going to be going through it for the first time and there’s going to be some apprehension and some nerves, maybe, as anybody who is experiencing something for the first time is going through,” Sachire said. “But at the same time, I really trust in those kids as people, and as players they are really, really good. We’re certainly going to have our fair share of high moments and great matches that we play.”
The Irish return four starters from last season’s singles lineup, but Sachire is confident in his ability to stretch the lineup to nine in order to win matches.
After a strong end to the 2017 calendar year, 45th-ranked junior Alex Lebedev is poised to take over the No. 1 spot in the singles lineup, while junior Grayson Broadus and sophomores Guillermo Cabrera and Matt Gamble also figure to play a large role after appearing in the majority of matches last season. Sachire is particularly eager to see Cabrera and Gamble evolve into nationally elite singles players, while being impressed by the consistency Broadus has brought to the court thus far this year.
“The level that they’re playing at in practice is different; they’ve improved,” Sachire said. “I’m excited to see if they’re ready, as sophomores, to translate that to being elite level match players for us. They’re going to get there at some stage, it’s just a question of when, and I’m excited to see if now is the time when Matt and Guillermo vault themselves into that national elite level.”
Sachire has also been impressed by the energy his three scholarship freshmen have brought to the court, and expects Richard Ciamarra, William Howells and Tristan McCormick to play in significant matches, as well. Junior Daniel Rayl and sophomore Johnathan Small also boast significant singles experience and are also likely to factor into the lineup throughout the season.
“I’m excited to see how the freshmen do. Tristan, Richie and William exude a presence on the court that’s pretty special. You don’t ever really know what’s going to happen in a dual match until you start playing with those guys. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get comfortable and others from the first point they play in a dual match situation they feel at home. I’m excited to see what we get on Friday night from them.”
With the graduation of duo Josh Hagar and Eddy Covalschi – who boasted three seasons of experience playing as a team – after last season, the Irish will tinker with several combinations as they look to solidify their doubles lineup. In the fall, the Irish tested 23 different partnerships, though Ciamarra and Gamble (4-1), Howells and Lebedev (3-1) and Howells and Broadus (3-1) saw the most success in tandem. Sachire also expects senior co-captain Brendon Kempin, who became a fixture at doubles as a junior, to once again factor into the everyday doubles lineup.
Strength in Schedule
Sachire emphasized the gauntlet his team will face as it works through the 2018 schedule. The Irish will take on 10 teams that are currently ranked or receiving votes in the Oracle/ITA Division I Men’s Rankings, including five teams in the top 10. Those not only include Atlantic Coast Conference powers such as No. 1 Wake Forest, No. 3 North Carolina, No. T-20 Florida State and No. 24 Duke, but also non-conference challengers in No. 2 Ohio State, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 8 Texas, No. 16 Illinois, No. 17 Michigan and a Kentucky team that is receiving votes.
Additionally, 15 Irish opponents were ranked in the final 2017 Oracle/ITA Division I Collegiate Rankings and appeared in the 2017 NCAA Championship.
“The schedule that we’re playing is going to be incredible,” Sachire said. “It’s going to literally be taking one step at a time and not looking too far down the road because it’s a challenging as heck schedule, but it’s also really, really fun because of the opportunities we have.”
The Irish open the season at 5 p.m. ET Friday, welcoming Michigan State to the Eck Tennis Pavilion. The match will be streamed on UND.com.
Notre Dame leads the all-time series with Michigan State 52-32. The teams last met Jan. 16, 2016, when the Irish defeated the Spartans 6-1 at the Eck Tennis Pavilion.
Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2014 and coordinates communications efforts for the Notre Dame men’s tennis and fencing programs, in addition to assisting with football communications and overseeing production of the football Gameday Magazine. Norell is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University and earned her master’s degree from Georgetown University in 2013.