During the USC men’s tennis team’s ring ceremony this past Saturday, the 2009 National Champions were recognized for their accomplishments.
Now the team finds itself back at the starting line of a long journey that ended in a national championship last year. The only difference? This year they’re starting out on top.
To recap last season’s run to the title: The team defeated Pac-10 foe Stanford, along with Texas, No. 1-seeded Virginia and Ohio State. The national title was the program’s 17th and coach Peter Smith’s first.
While the fall competition for the men’s tennis team will primarily be individual tournaments, the results will have an effect on team rankings entering the spring. The fall competition is also an opportunity for the Trojans to improve their individual rankings in both singles and doubles play.
“It is important to start the [spring] season with a good ranking,” senior Robert Farah said.
“Absolutely,” sophomore Steve Johnson agreed.
Already, the team boasts four singles players ranked by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, as well as three ranked doubles teams. No. 3 Farah, No. 18 Johnson, No. 49 junior Jaak Poldma and No. 99 sophomore Matt Kecki all sit among the rankings. Farah and Johnson return as No. 3-ranked doubles partners while Kecki and Poldma come into the rankings at No. 35.
Last season Farah and Johnson played primarily at the number one position and Kecki and Poldma held things down on the third court. That left the second position to sophomore Daniel Nguyen and then-senior Abdullah Magdas. Magdas has since run out of eligibility, but freshman JT Sundling looks to fill his position. Sundling and Nguyen have quite a bit of experience playing together, including a stint at the US Open earlier this month, so the transition is likely to be a smooth one.
“We won Kalamazoo [this summer] and took a set off of a professional team,” Nguyen said of his and Sundling’s success together.
Magdas was the only senior last season so the Trojans should return almost their full lineup along with the additions of freshmen Sundling and Joel Giger. Magdas played a key role in the Trojans’ run to a national championship last season, but these fresh faces provide fresh talent.
“We’re just as good as last year,” Nguyen said. “Maybe even better.”
An experienced team should serve the Trojans well and it’s a far cry from the situation they found themselves in just one year ago. Of the 10 players on the roster entering the 2008 preseason, five were freshmen. A young program, however, did not stop them from enjoying success, as evidenced by the 2009 title.
Coming up for the Trojans is the All-American Qualifying tournament in Tulsa, Okla. The tournament serves as a chance for ranked players to improve their standing and unranked players, like Nguyen and senior Jason McNaughton, to break into the rankings.
“I’m pretty pumped,” Nguyen said. “I want to do well and get a ranking.”
“I want to be a great preseason player,” McNaughton added.
In all, it looks like the Trojans will come back this season just as much of a force and threat, if not more so, than last season with a year of added experience and a national championship under their belts.
Some players feel the national championship takes the pressure away, while others feel the opposite.
“The monkey’s off the back,” Johnson said. “We won a title.”
“We have a target on our back now, but I’m looking forward to the competition,” Nguyen said.
Either way, the Trojans are back and ready for action, and as Smith called them at the conclusion of last season, they are “absolutely the team to beat.”