Sept. 15, 2008
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Having advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament each of the last two seasons, Vanderbilt men’s tennis coach Ian Duvenhage is looking for more as he enters his fourth season in Nashville.
“The goal is to not only make the NCAA Tournament year-in and year-out, but to advance past the second round,” Duvenhage said. “To me, things really become meaningful when you reach the Sweet 16 and that is something we haven’t done, and that is the next step.”
To return to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in the past nine years and advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004, the Commodores will rely on a youthful team that features just one senior (Nick Cromydas) and six underclassmen.
Although the challenge may seem daunting given the youth of the team, anyone who has witnessed the continual progress of the program under Duvenhage wouldn’t be surprised.
Since Duvenhage arrived in Music City prior to the 2005-06 season, he has increased Vanderbilt’s win total and final ranking each year. He has also taken the team from 7-14 in 2006 (No. 71) to 11-13 in 2007 (No. 37) and 14-10 in 2008 (No. 26).
“I feel like we made tremendous progress in the first three years,” Duvenhage said. “All teams have a collective knowledge and understanding of what it takes to be successful, and I feel this team coming back this year has a much, much better understanding of what it takes to be successful not only in Division I college tennis, but in the SEC.”
Despite the vast improvements in final record and ranking, one mountain the Commodores have been unable to climb in Duvenhage’s first three years has been the team’s place in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. Last year, the team finished eighth in the league and fourth in the SEC East with a 4-7 record.
One of the factors in Vanderbilt’s final standing in the league has been the overall strength of the conference. Last year alone, four teams from the SEC (Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee) finished in the top 10 and all 12 teams were ranked in the top 58. Georgia won the national championship for the second year in a row, and the other three advanced to the Sweet 16.
While the strength of the league certainly makes it difficult to consistently finish at the top, Duvenhage knows it is something the Commodores must improve on.
“We talked at the end of the season about how we were eighth in the SEC and (ranked) 26th in the country,” Duvenhage said. “It says how incredibly competitive the SEC is, but it also says that while we have continued to move up the rankings, we need to get in the top 20 on a consistent basis. Eighth in the SEC is not even remotely good enough.”
To make that leap in the SEC and in the NCAA Tournament, the Commodores must replace departed seniors Ryan Preston and Evan Dufaux. By losing Preston to graduation, Vanderbilt also lost its No. 1 singles player for the past three years. Because of the loss of Dufaux and Preston, combined with the youth of the team, Duvenhage will count on a number of players to continue to make strides in their game this next year.
“I think this year is going to be challenging for us,” Duvenhage said. “Losing Ryan Preston is not a small thing. He epitomized what it was to be competitive, so there is a void there that someone is going to have to fill. In spite of the fact that we’ve come a long way and we are a much more mature team, we are still looking at a situation where only four of our players are upperclassmen.
“The majority of our kids are young and I like our freshman, but we are going to need a number of people to make a quantum leap this year and considerably raise their level.”
Despite its youth, Vanderbilt has a lot of the intangibles that would usually be found with a veteran team.
“This team has tremendous desire and toughness,” Duvenhage said. “There have been teams in the past that I’ve coached where I’ve felt like I’ve wanted it more than they do. I’ve never felt that even once with this team. They are really, really motivated and have a tremendous level of desire.”
That desire and toughness was evident last year with seven of the team’s 14 wins coming by the score of 4-3. Moreover, Vanderbilt’s last five wins of the season, including all four in the SEC were by a 4-3 margin.
“We won a lot of close matches last year, and we did so because we were tough,” Duvenhage said. “When it got down to the nitty gritty, we were tougher than the people that we played. Maybe not more talented, but more disciplined and we handled adversity a little better.”
On the court, the Commodores have a host of players, who could contend for the No. 1 spot, including senior Nick Cromydas, junior Vijay Paul and sophomore Bryant Salcedo.
Cromydas ended 2008 as Vanderbilt’s hottest player with wins in his final four matches, all in the No. 2 position. The Glenview, Ill., native was Vanderbilt’s only player to post a winning record in the SEC (6-5). Cromydas also clinched Vanderbilt’s wins over No. 57 South Carolina and No. 38 Mississippi State last year.
A notably slow starter, Cromydas opened dual play with a 2-7 record, but finished 9-4 to close the season. In order for Commodores to start the season strong, Duvenhage knows that Cromydas’ start will be key.
“He is the quintessential guy that you want in a deciding match,” Duvenhage remarked. “His challenge this year is going to be that traditionally he is a slow starter. He comes in in the fall and he is one of those kids who needs to get away from the game from time to time, so what he does a lot is not play a lot of tennis in the summers, so when he hits his stride, it’s March. I’d like to see him hit his stride by November.”
Paul began last season on fire by winning his first six matches in the No. 2 position in dual play after going 10-3 in the fall. However, Paul hit a stumbling block midway through dual play before recovering to tie sophomore Alex Zotov for the team lead with 22 wins. Paul’s top moment came in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, where he clinched Vanderbilt’s come-from-behind 4-3 win over No. 38 Indiana.
“He is one of the guys that has the potential of stepping up and playing No. 1 and being very successful at No. 1 because he’s got the stuff,” Duvenhage said. “The thing that I want Vijay to have this year is faith. We talk about it a lot. He loses faith in himself so easily. If the last shot wasn’t a good one, then he wonders about himself. I’m looking for that to be different this year.”
Joining Paul in the junior class are Scott Lieberman and James Moye.
One of the most athletic players on the team, Lieberman didn’t see any action in dual play last year, but he should have an opportunity to contribute this season.
“Scott will tell you that he has underachieved,” Duvenhage commented. “I think he is very motivated and ready to live up to his potential. He is a terrific athlete. His problem isn’t athleticism, his problem is focus, and he is working hard to make those corrections and I’m really hopeful that he will make them.”
After not playing much at the start of dual play, Moye had one of the strongest finishes of anyone on the team, finishing 3-1 in the No. 6 position. Moye clinched Vanderbilt’s win over Arkansas in the SEC Tournament and also won his singles match against Indiana in the NCAA Tournament.
“The guy leaves everything out there,” Duvenhage said. “I have a great deal of confidence in his ability to compete and his ability to overcome adversity. He played a great match against Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, where he was cramping up and his opponent was cramping up, but James handled it better than his opponent did. I have a lot of confidence in his competitiveness.”
Joining the four upperclassmen as returning letterwinners are sophomores Adam Baker, Andy Pulido, Bryant Salcedo and Alex Zotov.
A local Nashville product, Baker played in every match last season. He finished 7-10 in singles play and 14-18 in doubles play.
“He improved a great deal this summer,” Duvenhage said. “I think his size is a huge plus. Fundamentally, he is very sound in every facet of the game. We’ve worked hard at improving his quickness and movement on the court. I think he can potentially contribute significantly.”
Pulido made great strides during his freshman campaign, and he should have an opportunity to contribute in 2009.
“He had some catching up to do last year,” Duvenhage said. “He worked really hard. The desire is there, and I’m hoping to see that he has closed the gap between him and the rest of the guys. He is a good enough athlete to contribute.”
One of the most talented players on the team, Salcedo played the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 positions last year, while accumulating a 15-13 record. Duvenhage believes that Salcedo will have an opportunity to play No. 1 next season.
“He can and should compete for No. 1,” Duvenhage said. “He is a great hitter of the ball. There isn’t a skill on the court that he doesn’t have. He is a great kid, who is very motivated and works very hard.”
Zotov tied Paul for the team lead with 22 wins. Like the rest of his class, Zotov showed significant improvement as the season progressed, and he should be primed for a strong sophomore campaign.
“Alex did a tremendous job for us last year,” Duvenhage said. “He personified what it means to be gutsy and tough and to work hard. He is just a tough kid and a very important part of the team for this year. There were certain holes in his game last year that — in spite of his toughness and desire and intangibles that he brings to the table — really hurt him. He worked unbelievably hard this summer to shore up some of those issues and I think he did. By the end of July, I felt like he was doing things way better than he did last year.”
Joining Vanderbilt’s eight returning letterwinners are freshmen Alex DiValerio and Charlie Jones. Both players come to Vanderbilt with much acclaim, having both been selected as two of just 40 high school All-Americans in 2008.
A native of Malvern, Pa., DiValerio has enough talent that it will be difficult to keep him off the court as a freshman.
“He has terrific tools,” Duvenhage said. “He just needs to learn how to use them. I think part of the problem is that you know it is pretty simple when you have two tools, but if you’ve got eight, then the decision making becomes a lot more crucial. He is as talented as they come. We are going to have to help him to bring his potential to fruition because his potential is enormous.”
Like DiValerio, Jones, a native of Destrehan, La., will have an opportunity to contribute immediately.
“He is very scrappy and quick on the court,” Duvenhage said. “He does a lot of things well. He is very solid off the ground. We are going to work hard with him, and we will help him improve his serve and volley a lot. He is a blue-collar kind of tennis player, and I predict that he is going to win a lot of tennis matches here in the next four years.”
With such a young team comes a lot of uncertainty entering the 2008 season. However, any questions should be quickly answered this spring with the Commodores playing a non-conference schedule that resembles that of an NCAA Tournament field.
The non-conference slate includes matches against a minimum of four teams that finished 2008 ranked in the top 17 (Michigan, Oklahoma State, Texas and Tulsa). The number will likely go up when Vanderbilt plays at the National Indoor Championships to open dual play in January.
“I just felt like it was really important for us with this team this year to stress them early on,” said Duvenhage of the schedule. “I want those guys to get their feet wet in a hurry and figure out what it is going to take for us to be successful quickly.”