2010 USC Men's Tennis Season Outlook
Jan. 27, 2010
They're probably the last words that opposing teams want to hear from the defending national champions:
'I think we're better than last year.'
Not one to mince words, USC head coach Peter Smith's first impression of his 2010 men's tennis team bodes well for the season to come for the Trojans. His squad picked up the 2009 NCAA Championship for Smith's first national title and the 17th overall for the USC men's tennis program. And if Smith's early glimpse of the Trojans is anywhere near accurate, well, then there's another pile of wins out there with USC's name on it.
After all, the Trojans return almost their entire lineup from last season as they enter 2010 as the nation's top-ranked team. That includes 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year Robert Farah, this season's No. 1 ranked singles player Steve Johnson, and a talented crew of young talent from USC's 2009 NCAA lineup in junior Jaak Poldma and sophomores Daniel Nguyen and Matt Kecki.
'The first thing that strikes me is that I think we're better than last year,' Smith said. 'I think at some point the experience is going to make a difference, but guys like Daniel Nguyen and Steve Johnson are just much better tennis players than they were a year ago. To compare those guys at this point, there's almost no comparison.
'The great thing about Steve is he will play any position on the team. He just wants the team to win. I'm sure he loves being ranked No. 1, but if he played No. 4 on our team, that would be alright with him. And it's the same with Rob. I'm so fortunate to have those guys, who only want the team to be successful. And they're one of the best doubles team and two of the best singles players. It makes a coach's job that much easier.'
Selfless AND better than ever? It's a scary thought for opponents. USC could be scary-good this year.
'I just feel fortunate,' Smith said. 'They're great kids, and that's the lifeblood of any great team. It says it all when you have three freshmen (Johnson, Kecki and Nguyen) in the starting lineup and you win NCAAs. We can do some special stuff this year.'
The lone hit to USC's 2009 lineup is graduated Abdullah Magdas, who was a clutch player for the Trojans in both doubles and singles throughout the run to the national title. In order to help fill that void, Smith has three newcomers to the roster - freshmen Joel Giger and JT Sundling and Dutch transfer Peter Lucassen.
'We added great players in JT and Peter,' Smith said. 'I think they're both guys that will be somewhere in the starting lineup and guys we can depend on. JT and Peter both were national junior champions.'
Two seniors stand tall for the Trojans this season in Robert Farah and Jason McNaughton. An All-American entering 2010 ranked No. 14 in the nation, Farah was in the No. 1 singles slot for USC last season and had the match-clinching win in the NCAA championship match against Ohio State. McNaughton was sidelined by injury for the NCAA tournament, but is expected to return to his impact role for the Trojans this season.
'Rob's leadership last year was if not the most important thing, it was very key to us winning it all,' Smith said. 'I see him more focused and putting so much more energy toward tennis and becoming a better player and athlete every day. We also need Jason's leadership, his work ethic, for him to be healthy and for him to be a big factor on the team. He's an extremely hard worker, extremely confident and tenacious.'
Juniors Jaak Poldma and Daniel Gliner provide further backbone to the Trojan campaign to repeat as national champs. Poldma comes into 2010 ranked No. 116 in singles - with plenty of potential to climb much higher.
'Jaak is as talented or more talented than anyone else on the team,' Smith said. 'The way he moves on the court, he's an absolute racecar. He can really come up big at times. Gliner is someone who has really not been a starter, but I really believe that if we need him, he'll be there for us. He's a very talented player.'
Believe it or not, as formidable as USC's seniors and juniors are, it's the sophomore class that is the linchpin in the Trojans' power. Three are nationally ranked to open 2010 - led by Steve Johnson's impressive No. 1 standing. No. 47 Matt Kecki and No. 78 Daniel Nguyen registered crucial wins for USC in the lineup as freshmen. Ben Lankenau also returns as a sophomore to the Trojan roster, having seen limited action in 2009, but with great potential as a booming player. And with a year under their belts, the group's talent level has skyrocketed.
'I can't remember a player ever improving as much as Steve has,' Smith said of Johnson. 'Last year he entered the season battling for a starting spot, and this year he's starting the season ranked no. 1 in the country. What can you say about that? He has great communication skills, great athletic ability, and has turned into a leader on our team. He's one of the very first sophomore captains I can remember having.
`Daniel also has seen a huge improvement this year. He's really challenging for almost any spot on the team. He certainly had the splashy headlines this summer - winning the national doubles title with JT and playing the US Open - that experience is invaluable,' Smith said.
'Kecki is a real winner on the court. He's won his whole life, and he knows how to win. When it comes down to it, he's never afraid of being the man in the moment. He has to stay healthy and excited to play tennis on a day-to-day basis. That's what's going to make him great.'
As the Trojans take shape for 2010, it's clear there's a target on their backs as defending national champs. They served up Virginia's only loss of the year during the 2009 NCAA quarterfinals, and handed Ohio State just its second loss as the Trojans grabbed that national championship trophy for themselves. USC finished 2009 with a 25-5 overall record, however, so even as defending NCAA champs, there's plenty of goals and unfinished business to take care of for 2010.
'I think our goals are always the same. We want to win the Pac-10, defend our home courts, and win national championships,' Smith said. 'The team championship is the biggest goal, although we really think we have some guys who can win singles and doubles. But clearly the focus is the national team championship, and that's what we will try and direct all of our energies toward.'
The 2010 Trojan train has its tracks laid out in the direction of Athens, Georgia. The first stop, however, is USC's own Marks Stadium, where the Trojans host their first seven dual matches of the year. Stay tuned...