By Shawn Tuteja
About a year ago, I wrote a piece about how the men’s tennis team was on the right path to regain its former dominance.
The article was written during a season that would eventually end in a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament and a prior season that had also ended in a first-round loss. I don’t bring up this piece for the sake of saying “I was right” — anyone who has heard me predict sports games would know that I’m living proof of the adage that a broken clock is right twice a day.
Rather, I think that in this day of wanting to find the negatives in a team’s performance, writers sometimes forget to do something I think is really important — congratulate a team on a successful season. Therefore, this column is my way of tipping my hat to the men’s tennis team on achieving success that very few saw coming.
Let’s first take a step back. Those familiar with the team might know that it has been nothing short of dominant in its illustrious history. After all, men’s tennis is the most decorated program in the history of Stanford athletics, with 17 national titles to its name and a multitude of players that have gone on to ascend the professional tennis rankings in both singles and doubles.
All of this legacy may be why so many were frustrated with how the past several seasons had gone. I’m sure it doesn’t help that during the last 15 seasons — which is the time since the team’s last national title —we’ve seen the rise of rivals UCLA and USC. The Trojans have won five of the last six national championships, and UCLA won a title in 2005 and was just a point away from a title two seasons ago. On top of this, many of the losses these past few seasons against UCLA and USC have not been competitive.
With this context, we arrive at this past weekend, where Stanford beat No. 15 UCLA and No. 5 USC to clinch at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season championship. Pretty remarkable, right? While it looks like I had optimism in the program in my piece last year, I can’t take credit for predicting that the team would win the Pac-12 just a season after losing 7-0 and 4-0 to USC and UCLA, respectively. As such, this column is my shout-out to the team, and hopefully a brief discussion as to a few reasons how the team has resurged to the top of the nation’s best tennis conference.
Firstly, the team plays extraordinary doubles. Over the past few decades at Stanford, fans have grown accustomed to seeing outstanding doubles lineups. These have included players like the Bryan brothers, who played at the top doubles spot on the same team as current head coach Paul Goldstein. The “doubles point,” which is awarded to the team that wins at least two out of the three doubles courts in a match, can often sway the momentum of matches, especially since doubles is played before singles.
In both of the matches this past weekend, Stanford secured the doubles point, meaning it only needed three of the six singles courts to clinch victory. In fact, throughout the entire season, Stanford has only lost the doubles point in three matches, which is incredibly impressive for a team that only has one doubles team ranked in the latest ITA rankings.
Featured at the top of the doubles lineup are seniors John Morrissey and Robert Stineman, whose ranking of the No. 36 doubles team in the nation is sure to go up following this weekend’s heroics. Rounding out the lineup are the teams of freshman Tom Fawcett and junior Maciek Romanowicz, and junior Nolan Paige and freshman David Wilczynski. All six of these players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for Stanford’s success this season.
Secondly, first-year head coach Paul Goldstein has done an outstanding job of helping this turnaround to happen more quickly than I thought possible. Given USC’s national championship just a season ago and the fact that both USC and UCLA returned key contributors from teams over the past few seasons, I fully expected that it might take a few years until Stanford was able to beat those powerhouses again. After all, less than a month and a half ago, Stanford was beaten decisively by both of those teams, which makes this past weekend all the more special.
Coach Goldstein has maximized the talent on the roster and deserves lot of credit for the aforementioned doubles pairings. Additionally, all three freshmen in last year’s recruiting class are featured in this season’s lineup, with David Hsu, Fawcett and Wilczysnki in the singles lineup and the latter two in the doubles lineup. The development of these freshmen in such a short time has to be indicative of good coaching, as well as the continual progress that returning players have made this season.
Thirdly and finally, while it is certainly important to give Coach Goldstein credit for this season, it is also important to acknowledge the role of former Coach John Whitlinger for his steps in building what we are now seeing from the team.
Coach Whitlinger, a former NCAA singles, doubles and team champion, retired at the end of last season following a 10-year tenure at the helm of the program. Before announcing his retirement a season ago, Coach Whitlinger recruited the nation’s top recruiting class of Fawcett, Hsu and Wilczynski. Moreover, throughout his time at Stanford, Coach Whitlinger coached Courts 4-6 during singles play, where nearly all of the upperclassmen have played while on the team. In my mind, his guidance of the program and his role in developing the players on the current roster cannot be overstated.
Going forward this season, the team can clinch sole possession of the conference regular season title with a win against Cal on April 18, and the new ITA rankings that will be released on Tuesday are sure to have Stanford much higher than its previous spot at No. 36.
Whether the team goes on to win the national championship or loses in the first round for the third consecutive year, there is no denying what the team has done this season. It has exceeded all expectations in spite of the skepticism that has surrounded the program for the past several seasons, and for that, I tip my hat to them.
Shawn Tuteja’s clock has been accurate at least twice in the past two months, as he also successfully selected UAB over Iowa State in the men’s basketball tournament. Ascertain when lightening will strike next at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu.