Adrians Zguns could be Z-man for Arkansas’ tennis team this season, but head coach Robert Cox’s club is far from a one-man show.
Coming off an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance and a No. 24 final ranking by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, Zguns will be at the top of UA’s lineup, but he has plenty of help back from last year’s 16-10 club.
“Expectations are real high,” Cox says. “We’re coming off back-to-back top 25 finishes in the ITA final rankings, and three out of the last four years finishing in the top 25. Having made the Sweet 16 last year, we need to take that as a measuring mark, and obviously we want to return to the Sweet 16 and make some noise when we get deep into the NCAA Tournament. It isn’t going to be easy, we realize that, having lost Nathan Price, who was our No. 1 player at the end of the year, but these guys have matured, and with the new guys we’ve added, we should make up that void that Nathan left.”
Zguns was 36-10, the fourth-best single-season win total in school history, advanced to the second round of the NCAA individual tournament, earned All-Southeastern Conference honors and ended the year ranked No. 18 in the nation.
Zguns, ranked No. 10 in the nation during the fall, is a given. The key to Cox’s optimism is the strong fall of fellow juniors Rohan Gajjar and Matt Roberts.
“Rohan has really proved a lot to himself and has really started to come of age,” Cox says. “Rohan has stepped up to the plate in a very promising, positive manner. By making the finals of the ITA Central Region Tournament, he really passed the test in a way that was very eye-opening to not only his teammates and coaches, but to other players in his region. He had an unbelievable tournament and had a chance to win the individual title, losing in the finals. He followed that up by playing the No. 1 player in the country (Catalin Gard, Ole Miss) in a very close match (7-6, 7-6) at the National Indoors in Michigan, again proving to himself that he can play with the best in the country and play well.”
Gajjar was 19-14 last year and ended the season by winning six of his last seven. Included in that run were the match-clinching victories in the NCAA Tournament over both No. 31 Oklahoma State and No. 18 Tennessee.
This fall, Gajjar, ranked No. 118, went 10-6 and reached the finals of the ITA/Wilson Region V Championships. He beat Zguns in the semifinals to advance. That performance earned Gajjar one of just 32 spots in the ITA National Indoor Championships where he gave Gard of Ole Miss all he could handle.
Gajjar, who played in a team-high five fall tournaments, had his last semester’s performance topped only by Roberts. The Little Rock native won his first 10 matches with the last seven coming in a run at the ITA/Icy Hot All-American. He finished the fall 13-2.
Roberts also teamed with senior Imraan Ismail to win the Region V doubles title. The duo went 9-4, including 5-0 at the regional tournament, and earned one of only 16 spots in the ITA National Indoor Championships.
“Matt had a breakout fall,” Cox says. “He took up where he left off last spring. He did some great work over the summer, came back in good shape, and with a great attitude that he wanted to prove something to himself and to the team. He had a spectacular run at the ITA All-American tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he won seven matches before being beaten by a top 30 player in the country (John Isner, Georgia). Matt has really stepped it up and really improved in all aspects of his game. One of the reasons he’s improved so much is his physical conditioning has gotten much, much better. That’s carried him through some pretty tough three-setters this fall. Both physically and mentally, he’s in much better shape than in the past.”
Zguns, based on his No. 10 national ranking, also earned a spot in the national indoors. Slowed at the beginning of the year by off-season surgery, he was just 6-6 in the fall, but Cox isn’t worried.
“Sometimes you can’t measure advancement by wins and losses, you’ve got to look at their games and how they progressed,” Cox says of both Zguns and sophomore Matt Simpson. “Both of those guys improved in the fall.”
Zguns and Gajjar should battle to be the new No. 1 for the Razorbacks. The only spot where Cox does not return last year’s starter, Nathan Price earned All-SEC honors by going 31-13 in the top position.
Zguns was No. 2 and Gajjar No. 3 last year, followed by Simpson, Roberts and Ismail, respectively. Zguns and Gajjar will likely both see time at the top position, followed by some combination of Roberts, Simpson and Ismail at three through five.
Simpson, who was just 10-16 after joining the team at mid-term last year, was 6-4 with a win over No. 115 Adrian Szatmary of Nebraska. Sophomore Andrei Nicoara, who was just 4-7 last year, went 5-4. Ismail, 19-16 at No. 6 last year, was only 3-4 in singles, but won the Region V doubles title with Roberts.
“We’ve kind of made Imraan more of an aggressive player, so we’re switching his game up a little bit and he’s taking to it real well,” Cox says. “I expect his game to really take off in the spring. We’ve also got Andrei Nicoara and (freshman) Michael Jung, they both put in a lot of time on the court. Their results were not spectacular, but they’re still adjusting to the men’s open and the collegiate game, but they’re doing it in a positive manner. They know what they have to do to get better.”
The big question for Cox, who became UA’s all-time victories leader last year and was the ITA Central Region V Coach of the Year, is what to do at the sixth spot.
Nicoara is an option, along with Jung and senior Talley Parker. Jung was 5-3 in the fall while Parker was 2-5 after going 8-7 last season. Other possibilities are freshmen Brenton Horne and Brian Yanulis. Neither one played a match in the fall.
“Talley is a good competitor, and has earned the respect of his teammates over the last three-and-a-half years,” Cox says. “He’s going to be one of our co-captains, this spring. He brings a lot to our practices, more than just his wins and losses on the court, a lot of maturity, a lot of Razorback heart, fire and spirit. You can’t measure with a ‘W’ or an ‘L.'”
In doubles, Roberts and Ismail are definitely one combination and will play either No. 1 or No. 2. Zguns and Gajjar, 2-0 in the fall and 10-9 last year, will be in either the first or second spot. The third team could be Simpson and Nicoara, who were 1-1 in the fall. Simpson played No. 1 with Price last year, going 8-14.
“We’ve got Adrians Zguns, who was preseason No. 10 in the country, and Rohan Gajjar and Matt Roberts, who had great fall seasons,” Cox says. “The top of the lineup is very secure. You can’t forget Simpson. He’s going to be up there real high in the lineup. Expectations are high. Barring any kind of injuries or major setback, we’ve got a very, very tough schedule to overcome. We should be okay.
“We’ve made the NCAA Tournament four straight times,” he says. “We’ve got a little streak going, and now we just want to go deeper. We’re not a stranger to the tournament. We’re going to be greedier once we make it this year. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are going to be a force in the SEC, and hopefully we’re going to be a force come May in the NCAA Tournament.”