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April 17, 2013

SEC Tournament Preview

Ask Vanderbilt men's tennis coach Ian Duvenhage about this season, and he will sum it up for you simply.

"The margin of error in college tennis is so minute. I use an analogy with my team: this is like two little kids fighting over a toy. The kid who is the most aggressive will get the toy. Nobody is going to give it to you, you have to take it, and that requires aggressiveness."

Aggressiveness is a theme Duvenhage has consistently preached throughout 2013, and it has been paying off for Vanderbilt men's tennis.

So far this season, the Commodores have posted a 15-9 record, the most team wins for the program in a season since 2004, finished 6-6 in SEC regular season play, and are currently ranked 16th in the nation going into the SEC Tournament this weekend.

This is the most overall success Duvenhage has seen in his eight years at Vanderbilt.

"It's not far-fetched to say that this whole thing started eight years ago when I got here. Every program develops a collective body of knowledge and culture and it takes time to develop. It's a function of everyone who's played here in the past eight years."

While increased aggressiveness is one of the centerpieces to this season, Duvenhage is quick to point to other keys to success as well. Three freshmen have had a significant impact in starting spots: Marc van der Merwe at No. 4 singles, Kris Yee at No. 5 and Rhys Johnson at No. 6. This points to depth, a difference from past seasons.

Another important factor has been consistency from redshirt junior Ryan Lipman at No. 1 singles, a player the Commodores have come to rely on since 2010.

Lipman, a two-time First Team All-SEC selection and former SEC Co-Freshman of the Year, is 28-9 this season, ranked 13th in the nation by the ITA and the undisputed leader of the team on and off the court.

"He's vocal and outspoken, and stands for the right things," says Duvenhage. "Not only does he talk the talk, but he walks the walk. We believe that being great is a way of life, not just something you do during practices and matches. It's about how you conduct yourself 24 hours a day, and he sets that example for the younger guys."

What's even more remarkable is that Lipman is seeing such success after missing last season due to injury.

"Last year, I learned a lot just from watching the guys play," says Lipman. "I was a volunteer coach, so I got to try and coach the guys and I've been able to incorporate that into how I play this year and it's been a key to some of my success."

The Commodores have also recorded three team wins over higher-ranked SEC opponents this year. Back-to-back road wins over No. 13 Mississippi State and No. 4 Ole Miss on March 15 and 17 capped an 8-1 streak by Vandy over the course of a month, and a more recent win over No. 8 Kentucky at home have put the Commodores in a position they have never seen before: the hunted.

"We have done a really good job of playing well against teams that had targets on their backs," says Duvenhage. "However, we haven't handled having that same target on our backs quite as well."

The statistics reflect this statement. Though Vanderbilt has had undisputed achievements this season, especially in comparison to recent history, there have been several bumps in the road.

The Commodores notched an impressive 11-3 home record this spring, while going only 3-5 on the road. This past week, a critical one leading into the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt lost two matches to lower-ranked opponents, South Carolina and Florida.

Duvenhage points to growing pains that any young teams can experience.

"We've never been ranked this high, so this is a new experience for us. It's easy to overact, but in time, we will look back and say this was something we had to go through. We had to learn how to be the hunted."

Despite the past two matches, the outlook is undoubtedly bright heading into the SECs, which will be hosted by Ole Miss this weekend. Vanderbilt opens the first round as a 7-seed against 10-seed Auburn, who handed the Commodores one of their three home losses on March 29.

Lipman knows exactly what he has to do.

"I need to capitalize on opportunities. I had so many chances to win my match [against Florida] last Sunday, and I let it slip away a little. I want to take ahold of those chances this weekend."

Duvenhage suspects his team couldn't be in a better position.

"It's about coming into matches with the same mindset and same aggressiveness. We have exactly the same matchups against Auburn that we did earlier in the season when they beat us. As such, they're the hunted this time and we're the pursuers, regardless of rankings."



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