The men’s tennis team is out of excuses for last year’s performance.
Last April, the team was knocked out of the American Athletic Conference Championships easily by then-No. 39-ranked Louisville, 4-0. The day prior, the women’s team was blanked by Central Florida.
“There is no reason that you should lose [4-0] to a team,” junior Nicolas Paulus said. “There should always be a few points on the board. Overall, not getting any points is disappointing. When you go in with high expectations and [the match] doesn’t go like you would like, it is disappointing. If you don’t think you have a chance before the match starts, you are not an athlete.”
That was the first time since 2012 the men were eliminated from conference play in the first round and only the second time since 2006. The loss to UCF last spring was the first time the women’s team lost in the first round of a conference tournament in its last 10 attempts.
The men’s and women’s tennis teams will travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma to compete in the conference championships April 15-19 at the University of Tulsa’s Michael D. Case Center.
This year offers a different test. The American has eight nationally ranked schools that will be competing in the tournament. On the men’s side, the University of South Florida has the highest Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranking at No. 19. On the women’s side, Houston has the highest ITA ranking at No. 28.
Tulane, Tulsa, Southern Methodist and Memphis are also ranked inside the Top 50 of the ITA rankings and will be featured in the men’s bracket. Outside of Houston, Tulane and Tulsa’s women’s programs have ITA rankings inside the Top 75.
The biggest challenge that both teams face is defeating the elite competition from The American. Combined, the men and women’s teams are 1-8 against nationally ranked and conference opponents.
The men’s team finished the regular season with a 14-9 record and a 1-2 record in conference play, paced by a veteran group of juniors in Paulus, Hicham Belkssir and Santiago Canete.
“I think for the most part, the guys understand that in order to play better against these ranked opponents, they must limit their errors,” Mauro said. “If you would chart each match, we have a lot of errors. [The conference tournament] is going to be a challenge, and I hope that we can sneak a win against a nationally ranked team.”
In the tournament, Mauro said any potential tournament run for his men’s side would have to depend on the bottom of the lineup.
Paulus, Canete and Belkssir made up Mauro’s Top 3 singles lineup for much of the season, compiling a combined 32-29 record.
The bottom of the lineup, though, has featured sophomores Filip Stipcic and Vineet Naran, as well as juniors Ondre Cargill and Ian Glessing. They have combined for a 32-24 record in singles matches during the spring season. On the other hand, they have struggled in conference play, posting a combined 3-4 record.
“I think that the bottom of the lineup needs to step up their play,” Mauro said. “They are capable of playing well and I am hoping that during the tournament I see good things from them.”
Canete said that outside of Connecticut and East Carolina, most of their conference opponents are out of Temple’s league.
“Tennis is not like most sports,” Canete said. “There are not a lot of upsets and to beat these nationally ranked teams, they must play bad and you must play some great tennis.”
Just like the men’s side, the women’s tennis team has had its share of struggles against strong competitors. The team has compiled a 0-4 record against conference opponents.
The Owls lost to Cincinnati on Feb. 21 without their No. 1 singles player in freshman Alina Abdurakhimova, due to a stomach illness.
On March 28, Temple lost its final conference match of the season, 4-3, against Connecticut without fellow freshman Yana Khon, who was sidelined with a sprained ankle.
“We had some tough conference matches on the road,” Mauro said. “We have lost some tough conference matches. I am confident that when we are healthy and even though we are young, we can still do well.”
The freshman trio of Monet Stuckey-Willis, Khon and Abdurakhimova, who have a combined singles record of 33-10 this season, will lead the Owls into the conference tournament on a six-match winning streak.
“As a team, we get nervous in conference matches,” senior Rebecca Breland said. “I think that we need to relax more. Many of us get up tight in conference matches, I don’t know why, but if we go out with a game plan and a clear mind we can do well.”
“There is no pressure when you are the underdog,” Stipcic said. “You can relax in those tough matches and focus on playing the best that you can.”
Dalton Balthaser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DaltonBalthaser.