Q&A With UCLA Head Coach Billy Martin
Jan. 14, 2009
Q: Before we talk about this year, can you quickly wrap up last year? It turned out to be quite a season despite losing your top four players from the year before.
A: Last year was just a dream year. It was my favorite year of coaching without a doubt. I went into last season with the least amount of expectations that I've had in my prior 24 years of coaching. Last year really showed me just how much team camaraderie and team chemistry means, as it was by far our closest group of guys. Everyone got along so well and that really made a difference. It was also our most focused team in the sense that everyone had just one goal and that was to win every match we could. I had the least amount of problems with players being concerned about where they played in the lineup. If anyone would've told me at the beginning of the year that we would win the Pac-10, beat USC three times, finish the season with just two losses and make the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament I never would've believed them. So yes, it was just a dream season in many ways.
Q: From a coaching standpoint, did you learn anything from last year's team?
A:Absolutely. Last year really showed me that if you have the right attitude, meaning you are not fearing losing and everyone is fighting for the same thing, that great things are possible. I think if you looked up and down all six courts everyone was really fighting and trying to contribute to the team. We've been guilty in the past of having some players not really giving their all on certain days and that was something that rarely ever happened last year.
Q: Now, focusing on this year's team, it looks like to be one of your strongest teams in recent years. Would you agree?
A:Yes, it looks like we could have a very good team and I certainly feel that we have a very good team, but a lot of it is going to depend on getting that same chemistry and cohesiveness that we were able to attain last year. If everyone has the same mindset as last year and really goes out and gives it their all in every match, this team will be very good. We were the underdogs in so many matches last year and I think that kind of helped in a way because you can go out and play a little looser. It's one of my worries this year to be quite honest because now we are going to be the favorites in a lot of matches. We need to have an attitude in matches that we aren't playing to defend what we have, we're playing to prove ourselves. That's the attitude we had last year and that's why I feel we did so well.
Q: What would you say is the greatest strength of this year's team?
A:I would have to say depth. In my opinion we have seven or eight really good players for six spots. If for some reason we have an injury, and I really hope we don't, there is going to be a really good player ready to step in and play for us at No. 6. So I think that depth is definitely one of our strengths. I'd also say that we have a very mature team. Our returning players have been through a long season before and know what to expect. And then the transfers that are going to be playing for us, Matt Brooklyn (ASU) and Amit Inbar (Maryland), were both the top players at their schools last year. So college tennis isn't going to be anything new to these guys. We're not going to have to throw anyone to the wolves, so to speak, and I think that's really important when it comes to playing in big matches like at the National Team Indoors and the NCAA Championships. The players we have aren't going to be in awe of any of those situations. And lastly, I'd say our final strength is going to be doubles. We have three solid teams that can all play at any spot in the lineup.
A: Without a doubt. Harel ended up being a very good leader for us last year, really showing great maturity at No. 1 singles and doubles. Michael is right up there too. And you can't forget (Haythem) Abid either. This would really be his senior year if he hadn't gotten hurt. But you know, we have a really great group of guys who are all very mature and extremely focused. I'm not as much worried about leadership this year as I have been in the past.
Q: You mentioned doubles being one of the strengths of the team this year. Who do you see playing together?
A: I just recently made up my mind which three teams that I see starting the year for us. And this is in no particular order because I really feel that we have three equally good teams. First off, I'm going to keep Nick (Meister) and Harel (Srugo) together. They are coming off a great year and really played some fantastic doubles towards the end of last year and into the NCAA Tournament. I think Holden (Seguso) and Matt (Brooklyn) will see a lot of time together, as will Amit Inbar and (Haythem) Abid. So those are the three teams that I see starting out the year for us. And this doesn't even include Michael Look, who was really solid for us in doubles last year. He is coming off a wrist injury so I'd kind of like to utilize him in singles and not do too much with him right off the bat. He's a guy with a lot of experience that can step in and take up a doubles spot if someone can't play for any reason.
Q: And how do you see the singles lineup shaping up?
A: I would say that I see Abid and Srugo playing in the top two spots, and I will probably have both play No. 1 at some point during the year. I see Seguso and Brooklyn in the three and four slots similar to Abid and Srugo, where both are going to play No. 3 at some point. Rounding out the last two spots in the lineup are probably going to be Amit Inbar, Nick Meister and Michael Look. That's three very good players for only two spots so it's going to be interesting to see which two players decide that they want to really fight for that last spot in the lineup. You could even throw Ahmed Ismail in there. He came in and played a few matches at No. 6 for us last year and did well. This is why I say that depth is going to be one of our real strengths this year. We essentially have eight very good players for six positions in the lineup.
Q: Were you encouraged with what you saw in the fall?
A: I was not overly impressed with our results in the fall to be quite honest, but it's been my past experience that most of our players really look forward to the team part of the season and aren't too concerned with individual results - especially with the upperclassmen who have played all those tournaments a number of times. Don't get me wrong, I think the team worked hard, but I just didn't see the real competitiveness that tends to come out when you're playing for the team. And I actually respect that in the players because we as coaches always preach that the team results are the most important. Where you are in the lineup and where you are ranked nationally is always secondary. I think the team has really bought into that mindset.
Q: What do you think are some of the keys to having a successful season again this year?
A: Our key is just to make sure we stay hungry and competitive. I think the coaches, the players, and even some of our opponents know we are going to be good, but that only takes you so far. What I don't know right now is just how hungry and how much this team wants to win a championship. I think we could be our own worst enemy to be quite honest. We know that there are going to be some teams gunning for us - we're not going to be given a free ride anywhere. I think we are one of maybe eight teams that have a really good shot at winning a national championship with a little luck. My job as coach is just going to keep the team focused and make sure everyone works really hard. With that being said, I also think it's my job to keep it fun and relaxed. I think I've learned over the years that it also has to be fun. That's also what was so great last year was that we really did have a good time together. I want that to continue this year and I think it will because we have good players who will keep it that way.
Q: Who do you see as the toughest roadblock in the team's quest for a sixth straight Pac-10 title?
A: I think Stanford is an unbelievably great team this year. They added a few players who are really going to make them a special team. As usual USC is going to be good. But Stanford is going to be tough for us because we play the Pac-10 counting match up there this year. We're fortunate in that the counting match with USC is going to be at our place. You know, winning the Pac-10 is always one of our three goals, along with going undefeated at home and winning the NCAA Championship. The Pac-10 is never easy and we are going to have our work cut out for us as usual. I'm really proud that we've been able to win five Pac-10 titles in a row. I guess I'm greedy enough to want a sixth.