2003 Men's Tennis Season Outlook
Jan. 14, 2003
Berkeley, Calif. - Since 1999, the California men's tennis team has been an object in motion. Steadily moving up the national ranking chart and win columns in each successive year, the Bears finished the 2002 campaign with a No. 13 national ranking and a 5-2 second-place conference record - its best Pac-10 finish ever. With all six singles starters returning, and the addition of two immediate impact players in Steve Berke and Or Dekel, head coach Peter Wright sees no reason why this object will not continue to stay in motion until it reaches the national championship in May.
'The ultimate goal for my teams has always been to win a national championship,' said Wright who is 119-87 in his nine years with the Bears. 'This year, though, I can say with confidence that we've put together one of the strongest teams in the country.'
Wright has good reason for this optimism. Every player in his lineup has had either a world ranking or significant international experience. Senior All-American and team captain John Paul Fruttero returns this spring after taking the fall season off to play in professional events as an amateur. As one of five seniors on this veteran squad, Fruttero enters the year nationally ranked No. 4 after finishing his 2002 campaign with a 16-6 dual match record.
Joining the experienced senior class is Yale transfer and college standout Steve Berke. The No. 45-ranked Berke, an All-American in 2001, advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2001 NCAA Championships, while earning the 2001 Ivy League Player of the Year distinction. The addition of Berke makes the Bears one of only two teams in the country to have four singles players (Fruttero, Veress, Niland and Berke) ranked in the Top 50.
'Steve is a talented and experienced player who will be valuable to the team in both his on-court performance and his off-court leadership,' remarked Wright.
But Berke is only half of the tremendous duo that Wright has added to his spring roster. The other half comes in the form of Or Dekel. Hailing from Israel, the 21-year-old Dekel, who like current Cal basketball star Amit Tamir served duty in the Israeli Army, brings an extremely high level of tennis and maturity to the Cal squad. Recently ranked as high as No. 330 in the world, Dekel enters the year as one of the highest world ranked college players in the nation.
Also returning is senior doubles All-American Robert Kowalczyk, opening the fall ranked No. 9 in doubles with partner Fruttero. Kowalczyk has taken the fall to refine his singles game, participating in the ITA All-American Championships and the Omni Hotels Northwest Regional Challenge. Perhaps the biggest win of the Bears' fall belonged to Kowalczyk, as he upended the No. 2 player in the country, Amer Delic of Illinois, at the Napa Valley Challenge.
With a great team returning and with the addition of two world class players in January, look for singles competition to be the mainstay of this 2003 squad. Holding down the top spot for the third year in a row will likely be Fruttero. The numbers speak for themselves. Ranked the preseason No. 4 player in the country, Fruttero has compiled a 38-20 record on the No. 1 court, while posting a 63-36 singles record overall.
'Each year John Paul gets a little bit better,' Wright said. 'He had an outstanding season last year, but look for him to be even better this season. He really brings the team dynamic into play and is focused on taking the team to the NCAA Championships.'
Balazs Veress, who forged a 10-7 record on court No. 2 as a sophomore, looks primed for another successful campaign in 2003. This fall the native Hungarian advanced to the semifinals of the Northwest Regionals, defeating Stanford's Scott Lipsky along the way.
'Balazs is looking to be one of the top guys on the team again this year,' said Wright. 'He's not easy to beat, he's smart, experienced and very determined.'
Conor Niland also performed well over the fall season. The Irishman looks to create a healthy dose of competition at the top of the lineup as well. The sophomore spent most of his time on the No. 3 court last year (7-3), but he also jumped between courts 2-5, finishing with a 14-7 dual record. Niland's athletic and gritty style will provide even more depth to an already veteran unit.
'With a solid freshman year under his belt, Conor has made great strides in his game and I expect 2003 to be even better,' remarked Wright.
Kowalczyk, who posted an 18-4 dual record on courts No. 3-5 last year has worked diligently at making this senior season his best ever. In addition to defeating the No. 2 player in the nation in September, Kowalczyk advanced to the Round of 16 at the regional championships in October, finishing the fall with a 5-3 tournament record.
'Robert's competitiveness will keep our team on its toes and bring other teams to their knees,' said Wright.
Wayne Wong returns for his junior year after having a rock-solid performance last season, competing in all but two matches for the Bears. He split time at courts No. 2-5 in dual match play, finishing the year leading the team in overall wins (24). His accolades continued to mount this fall, as the Hong Kong native put together a 10-match winning streak over three tournaments. In the midst of his streak, Wong won the University of San Diego Invitational and finished the fall with a stellar 10-2 record.
Mik Ledvonova, a native of Denmark, held down the No. 5 and No. 6 courts for the Bears in 2002, finishing the season with a 16-3 overall dual record. He has been hampered by tendinitis in his right hand over the summer and early fall, but should be primed and ready for the spring campaign.
Competing for playing time in the lineup will be sophomore Patrick Briaud, redshirt freshman Dean Wallace, and junior college transfer Kuni Minato. Briaud, who worked his way into the doubles lineup last year, performed solidly this fall finishing with a 6-6 record. Wallace competed at the Regional Championships, earning himself a spot in the Round of 32. Minato, a junior college transfer, comes to Cal after finishing 2002 as the No. 2 ranked junior college player in the state of California.
All of these returnees, plus the additions of Berke and Dekel, who both join the team as possible 1-4 singles competitors, gives coach Wright plenty of options in creating his singles lineup.
While experimenting with six different doubles combinations this fall, very little has fallen into place quite yet. With Fruttero taking the fall off, and Berke and Dekel arriving in January, the Bears look to form some new combinations for the 2003 season. Perhaps we could see the return of the No. 9-ranked duo of Fruttero and Kowalczyk who earned All America status for 2002.
Wright's squad used 10 different doubles combinations last year en route to a 41-26 overall dual match doubles record. So look for 2003 to be much of the same, as many different doubles possibilities could come to fruition.
'I plan on giving some serious attention to our doubles teams in the early part of the season, to see what's working and what's not,' said Wright. 'We have many possibilities, so I will be trying to find the combinations that seem to have some natural chemistry.'
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