Back-to-back men’s tennis champs hope to earn third title in a row

Why head to Staples Center to find a two-time defending championship team, arguably the best player in his game and an unparalleled tradition? That team is right here on campus – the USC men’s tennis team.

As the new season commences, the preparations and expectations for the defending 2009 and 2010 NCAA champions are the same as they have always been.

“Having won the NCAAs two times in a row, I don’t think changes anything we do,” said coach Peter Smith.  “Winning championships is nothing new for USC athletes.  That is the expectation we have every year.”

During the summer break, many of the players have been playing in tournaments throughout the world.

As players return to Troy, the attention will change from a collective atmosphere – during the spring semester – to individual play throughout the first semester.

“During the individual season, there is less emphasis on working as a team, you want to focus more on how well you perform at the individual tournaments in the fall,” said junior Daniel Nguyen.  “When the team season comes around the corner, we now focus on the team as a whole and how we represent the university and team.”

The inevitable turnover of a college roster did not evade this Trojan team as two seniors moved on following the end of last season.

Jason McNaughton – who overcame several injuries throughout his career at USC – contributed in many key matches last season.

In addition, USC lost Robert Farah, the reigning ITA Player of Year who finished the season ranked No. 1 in singles and No. 3 in doubles.  Farah is currently playing professionally and has shot up to 225 in the ATP rankings.

“Losing Farah is a real challenge for our team,” Smith said. “He developed into a leader for us and he won so many important matches for us.  We hope that we can develop someone like Rob soon.  I think [junior] Steve Johnson can fill that role quickly, but the key is can we find someone to fill in for Steve.  Someone like [senior Jaak Poldma], Nguyen, or [senior Peter Lucassen] needs to step up.”

Veteran Steve Johnson, who played doubled with Farah, agreed.

“Those are certainly tough shoes to fill, but we have guys from last year coming back ready to step up and hopefully a few of the new guys coming in will come in and bring a lot to the table,” Johnson said.

The newcomers consist of three freshmen who show promise in keeping the championship tradition alive for seasons to come: Raymond Sarmiento, a Fontana, Calif. native who was rated second nationally in his recruiting class, Santa Barbara, Calif. native Michael Grant and Corey Smith. (he might be the coach’s nephew — can you ask the writer for more info on him?)

The focus for these freshmen should not be tennis as much as adjust to the college lifestyle during this first semester, Peter Smith said.

“I am not so much worried about their tennis, I know we can take care of that on the court,” he said.  “I am concerned that they will make the correct decisions off the court. The adjustments they need to make are going to be in balancing academics and tennis.”

Overall, Smith said, the experience of the past two seasons has ingrained in this team the ability to not concentrate on peripheral distractions, and the knowledge that the foundation for championship-level play is laid during the individual season.

“The biggest takeaway from last year is that talk and seedings are cheap, toughness and true confidence are the only things that really matter on the final days of the season,” Smith said.