Men's Tennis Looks To Benefit From Deep, Talented Roster
Jan. 15, 2002
What's one difference between an average team and a national championship contender?
Depth is what the USC men's tennis team has been searching for the past five years. Lack of depth is what has kept the Trojans from breaking the Top-10 since finishing seventh in 1997.
But this year is different.
This season, USC boasts a 13-player roster made up of nine returning letterwinners, seven of whom have played in the top six for the Trojans over the last two years.
'All the good teams have seven or eight solid players and have a decent amount of experience,' said 23rd-year head coach Dick Leach, who is looking for his fifth NCAA Championship at the helm of the USC men's tennis program.
'This is the first time in a long time where I've actually had seven players who are experienced at this level and I'm excited. It will be nice to have reserves who will get to play a ton and be good enough to step in and win at any time.'
Leach has good reason to be excited. Among the Trojans' returners are doubles All-Americans Ryan Moore and Nick Rainey and last season's No. 1 starter and All-Pac-10 selection Andrew Park. All are seniors.
'Our senior leadership is going to be an important key to this team's success,' said Leach. 'I think these players are excited about the season. They are tired of losing to some of their archrivals and I think they realize that we finally have enough depth to get the job done.'
In 2001, the Trojans finished 15-9 overall and 3-4 in conference play for a fourth-place tie. Despite the team's talent, an already thin roster was affected by an early season injury to Daniel Langre (torn ligament in his left knee), who was expected to play among the team's top four. USC advanced to the NCAA Round of 16 by upsetting Mississippi, 4-3, in the second round and finished the season ranked No. 20 in the final ITA poll.
The Trojans also witnessed outstanding individual performances throughout 2001. In the fall, Park won the SoCal Intercollegiate Championship and the ITA Region VIII South Championship for the second straight year. Moore capped off his singles season by upsetting top players from UCLA, Cal and Stanford to win the Pac-10 Singles Championship in Ojai. Park and Moore both received berths in the NCAA Individual Singles Championship.
Rainey and Moore - the 2000 NCAA Doubles Championship runners-up - put together another spectacular season in 2001. The duo captured two titles in the fall, were tabbed ITA National Doubles Team of the Month in March and advanced to the NCAA Doubles Quarterfinals.
'These seniors have a sense of urgency for their team and this year they finally have the right supporting class to get it done,' said Leach, who owns a 510-128 (.799) career record at USC. 'They've accomplished a lot individually but now we're looking for them to get it done as a team.'
The top of this year's lineup will remain unchanged as Park (San Marino, Calif.) and Moore (Fullerton, Calif.) pick up where they left off at No. 1 and 2. Park enters 2002 ranked No. 22 by the ITA after his performance in the fall, while Moore remains unranked because he did compete in preseason tournaments. He and Rainey instead competed as amateurs in various professional tournaments in the fall.
Last season, Park went 15-7 in dual matches (29-10 overall) at No. 1 and Moore tallied a 14-7 record in duals (21-12 overall) at No. 2.
According to Leach, the rest of the lineup is up for grabs.
'This is the first team since 1993 where I've actually had seven players who are experienced at this level so they all deserve a chance,' said Leach. 'I'm planning to have a series of challenge rounds so that the players can decide for themselves who deserves to be at what position.
'With the exception of Park and Moore, who have earned their positions, the next six players will compete for their spots. But no matter the result, they all will play at some point so everyone gains experience.'
A top contender for the No. 3 position will be freshman Prakash Amritraj (Encino, Calif.), the son of Indian tennis legend Vijay Amritraj. The younger Amritraj has already proven that he could one day follow in his father's footsteps.
'The biggest surprise for me so far this season has been Prakash,' said Leach. 'He has improved more this fall than any player I have ever had in my 22 years of coaching. He's so talented and improves at such a fast rate that he will constantly challenge the other players on the team.'
But Amritraj will have to compete against Rainey (Mercer Island, Wash.) and sophomores Langre (Mexico City, Mexico), Damien Spizzo (Melbourne, Australia) and Ruben Torres (Cali, Colombia) - all players with significant intercollegiate experience.
'Damien is a very talented young man who played well last year and Torres is undoubtedly one of our hardest-working players,' said Leach. 'And we finally have Daniel back, who had the team's best record as a freshman before missing last year. He's fully recovered now and I know he is ready to start playing.'
Though his performance is always strongest in doubles, Rainey was effective at No. 4 last season, finishing with a 14-10 record in dual matches and 23-14 overall mark.Spizzo and Torres were mid-season additions in 2001. The pair joined the team in January and immediately were added to the starting rotation. Spizzo played primarily at No. 3 and posted an 18-9 overall record (15-6 in dual matches), while Torres tallied a 16-9 overall mark (15-6 in duals) at No. 5.
Five others also will fight to play at No. 6 or 7 when substitutions are needed. Christian Jensen (Newport Beach, Calif.) and Garrett Wong (Thousand Oaks, Calif.) return for their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively. Jeff Kazarian (Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.), Teige Sullivan (Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.) and Daniel Tontz (San Diego, Calif.) enter their first seasons at USC.
Junior Parker Collins (Newport Beach, Calif.) - a two-year returning starter at No. 6 - likely will redshirt this season.
Of all the things Leach has to be excited about this year - the team's depth, talent and highly-regarded seniors - the one thing he is most looking forward to is the outstanding doubles play he expects to see on the court.
'Our real strength this season actually will be our doubles play,' said Leach. 'We're going to have three of the best doubles teams I have had in a long time... probably since I coached six All-Americans in 1984.'
Leach expects to play Rainey and Moore at No. 1, Langre and Spizzo at No. 2 and Park and Amritraj at No. 3. Torres will be the first substitute.
'They really could be as good as the team we had in '84 with Rick Leach, Tim Pawsat, Jorge Lozano, Todd Witsken, Matt Anger and Antony Emerson (five of the six were three- and four-time All-Americans).'
Rainey and Moore are looking for a third-straight All-American season as the only experienced pair in the lineup. Langre and Spizzo, both strong singles players, will be paired for the first time this season in doubles. And Park's experience and Amritraj's talent will likely combine to produce a strong tandem at the third spot.
The strength of USC's doubles play does not end in the starting rotation. Kazarian and Sullivan are also a valuable addition to the team, having played together in high school. The duo captured the 2001 prep Ojai Doubles Championship as seniors.
'Jeff (Kazarian) did not play in the fall while he was recovering from a back injury but he is someone who I'm counting on in the future to be a good player for us,' said Leach. 'Teige (Sullivan) was a nice surprise for us and I think he is ready to play Pac-10 doubles right now if he had to.'
The Trojans finally have some depth, they have three talented senior leaders and they have an excellent lineup, which includes some of the best doubles talent USC has seen in recent years. So the only thing USC has left to do is win.
It's a task that is easier said than done when the team must face the always-difficult task of competing in the Pac-10 - one of the nation's toughest conferences. But it is a task the Trojans are well equipped for in 2002.