FAYETTEVILLE –The 2012 Razorback men’s tennis team comes into the spring season reloaded with youthful experience as well as returning veteran experience in hopes of returning the Arkansas tennis program back to the top of the standings.
This year’s schedule is loaded with strength as the Hogs will welcome six teams to their home courts that finished the year ranked in the ITA Top-75 last season. Overall, the Razorbacks’ spring schedule features 14 ranked teams with eight coming from the Southeastern Conference alone. Head Coach Robert Cox thinks that his team is up to the challenge and will benefit in the long run.
“Our schedule really sets up perfectly for the team we have,” Cox said. “If we can get off to a good start and grab some of these non-conference ranked wins early, it’ll give us a lot of confidence going into SEC play.”
On paper, Arkansas fields one of its largest rosters in recent years. 12 players make up the 2011-12 Arkansas Razorbacks and eight players return from last year’s squad. According to Coach Cox, the large roster makes finding a doubles rotation easier to mix and match when the time calls for it.
“You have to have a deep team to go through the schedule,” Cox said. “I think we have that this year. We have a good mix of guys and nearly the entire roster will definitely see playing time this year.”
Seniors Nikolas Zogaj and Matt Walters lead the way this year as the two captains of the team. Zogaj finished the 2011 spring season fourth on the team in wins in singles with a 13-21 record, while Walters salvaged eight wins to bring his career record to 27-27 going into this year’s fall season.
The two bounced back in a big way this fall going a combined 13-6 in singles and Walters teamed up with junior Hall Fess to go 8-1 in doubles for the most wins on the team. Coach Cox says he wouldn’t want any other guys leading the team this year than Zogaj and Walters.
“Over the last four year, Zogaj and Walters have played a lot of dual matches,” Cox said. “Our third senior,Taj Harrison, is playing his best tennis right now as well and completes the trio of seniors that are going to lead this team this spring. Zogaj has been through highs and lows with our prgram and really matured over the years as well and Walters is just a leader on the courts.”
The Razorbacks not only have senior leadership this season, but they also bring back a field of juniors, who were responsible for a large portion of their wins last year. Gregoire Lehmann and Mike Ward return 27 singles wins with them from the 2011 spring season and also 28 doubles wins combined between the two. Both players are accomplished doubles players and have been able to hold their own in singles over the years. Coach Cox sees both Lehmann and Ward as a strong portion of this year’s team and the possibility of being strong doubles team together.
“It’s going to be important for us to win that doubles point in dual matches,” Cox said. “We don’t have any superstars, we all know our role and our identity. We’re gonig to be looking at all combinations come January. The good thing is, they all have interchangable parts, which helps mix and match.”
Lehmann and Ward both bring an exponential amount of experience to the table this year as both players have garnered extended playing time since their freshman seasons.
Coach Cox knows that having that experience on the team is like having two more seniors on the roster.
“With the mix of these guys, we have such good team chemistry,” Cox said. “Everything seems fresh this year and I can tell Lehmann and Ward are ready for their junior campaign. For both of those guys who have had some success, they want to get to the NCAA Tournament because they haven’t gotten to taste that yet.”
Jovan Parlic, Christian Lee, Victor Hoang and junior college transfer Pete Thomason make up the newcomers for the 2012 team. All four players come in with plenty of international experience and Coach Cox believes that the new players will contribute earlier than expected.
“All these new guys have helped come in and change the culture of the team,” Cox said. “They’ve really changed the mindset. They’ve brought freshness and I think we did a good job of recruiting character. They bring more to this team to just on-court success. Off the court, they are in another league.”
If there’s one thing the Razorbacks will focus on this year, it’s doubles. The doubles point in dual matches is always a momentum booster in college tennis and Coach Cox wants to continue that tradition this season at Arkansas, which has been known for its doubles dominance over the years.