Getting Back Into The Swing

May 9, 2007

By Elizabeth Pratt The Stanford Daily

May 9, 2007

Stanford, CA (CSTV U-WIRE) -- When the Stanford men's tennis team took on California in Pacific-10 Conference play on Mar. 10, the group looked different from the team that played the Golden Bears in 2006. In an occurrence that is extremely rare in college tennis today, Stanford's six-man singles lineup solely included players who had not started in the previous season.

With several players graduating, leaving the team or suffering major injuries, the responsibility to represent the Cardinal this season rested mainly on the shoulders of the team's relatively unseasoned players. And despite the challenges of match play and the pressure to live up to past years, the players gained one of the most valuable assets: experience.

'All of the elements were there for this season to be successful, but a couple things didn't go our way,' sophomore Jeff Zeller said. 'But the experience we gained from this year is only going to help us, and it's going to make us a lot more successful come next season.'

Stanford finished 8-16 overall and 2-5 in the Pac-10 for the season, which many would consider a disappointment after last year's 18-4, 6-1 Pac-10 record. Still, the Cardinal looks at this year as one that can make the team stronger.

'I feel like [the season] was a growing experience,' sophomore Blake Muller said. 'I know that the freshmen learned a lot this year; I know I learned a lot too. It'll be a great inspiration for next year.'

Much of the team's inspiration will come from what head coach John Whitlinger called this season's low point: not earning an invitation to the 2007 NCAA team championships.

'Not getting your name called [for the tournament] is disappointing,' Whitlinger said. 'I don't plan on going through that again.'

Since the inception of the NCAA tournament, the Cardinal has received a bid to the team championships every year except 1982 and 1987. Stanford has the most successful men's collegiate tennis program in history, having won a record 17 national titles. The most recent of those came in 2000.

'[Missing the tournament] is tough, but going forward, I think, it's a motivator,' Zeller said. 'The guys are going to work harder to get us into the position we want to be in next year, which is competing for a national title.'

Dick Gould, the director of Stanford tennis who also coached the men's team to numerous championships between 1968 to 2004, thinks this year's squad is bouncing back well.

'You always learn from hard times, and they come when you least expect them,' Gould said. 'That's the way things work in this world.'

Whitlinger, a Stanford tennis standout who won NCAA singles, doubles and team titles during his time on the squad, emphasized that the championships are only one measurement of achievement. While he knows the NCAAs are an important part of a season, he also said that many other factors define success.

'It's the progress made every day and how they mature as individuals - there's so much more that goes into the team and into development than wins and losses,' Whitlinger said.

Zeller agreed with his coach, and the sophomore thinks his teammates are not only tougher on the court after this season's challenges but also more confident.

'I think everyone is happy with the progress that we've made,' he said. 'If you ask any guy on the team, they'll say they are a much better tennis player now than they were in the beginning of the year.'

Though much of the Cardinal's development came at the expense of its win-loss record, the season was not without its highlights. Whitlinger cited senior Dave Ryan's match-clinching victory against Santa Clara, the win over No. 26 Miami at the ITA Indoor Nationals in February (where the Card, at the time, was ranked 28th), and the team's outstanding success at this year's Pac-10 Individual Championships as notable points in the season.

Muller, Zeller and their coach all showed appreciation for the rest of the Stanford squad. Muller praised the team's 'great camaraderie,' and Zeller enjoyed the team's chemistry and work ethic.

Gould idenfitied another upside to the Stanford program this season.

'We have two great coaches: John Whitlinger and [assistant coach] David Hodge, who are the best coaching combination in the country,' he said. 'With their leadership, you're going to see tremendous success in the years ahead.'

Despite the team's failure to receive a bid, NCAA success is still within the Cardinal's reach this season.

Sophomore Matt Bruch, the 2006 and 2007 Pac-10 singles champion, will compete in the NCAA singles championships beginning May 23. Additionally, Bruch and Muller were selected to compete in the NCAA doubles championship, starting May 24. The duo will try to win the title most recently earned for Stanford in 2004 by Sam Warburg and KC Corkery.

'I got to watch the individual championships last year, and I remember making it one of my personal goals to be in them,' Muller said. 'Obviously, the team is what matters most, but to be in the individuals is great.'

(C) 2007 The Stanford Daily via CSTV U-WIRE

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