When Danil Zelenkov lost his singles match at UC Santa Barbara five weeks ago, the promising freshman from Macedonia saw his singles record slump to 9-8.
The rest of his team followed suit, and the Colonials ultimately fell to the Gauchos, 6-1.
But since the poor showing in southern California, GW has lost just one match, and Zelenkov has yet to lose again on the singles court.
With the team now focused on the Atlantic 10 tournament – which starts Thursday in Ohio with GW as the No. 2 seed – the straight-talking freshman has his sights set even further.
“This season is like the first battle of a major war,” Zelenkov said. “With what we are trying to accomplish, forget the rankings and the NCAAs. Forget everything. It’s about building that discipline and that image and values in the team so that when new players come to the team they know the culture.”
Recently, that culture has become one that demands winning. The team is now hoping to grab a third straight conference trophy and clinch a third consecutive NCAA tournament bid.
Zelenkov will enter the A-10 Championship riding an eight-match winning streak at the No. 3 singles position, and a six-match winning streak at the No. 2 doubles slot.
He’s setting a new standard for freshman athletes, having won A-10 Rookie Performer of the Week seven times, including once this past week. That’s the highest number of weekly honors given to a men’s tennis freshman in the conference since 1999.
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Before coming to GW, head coach Greg Munoz asked the incoming freshman to gain some experience on GW’s hard courts. Zelenkov previously had exclusive experience playing on clay courts where the ball travels much slower, but he’s adjusted quickly to the faster courts, eliminating any concerns Munoz may have once held.
“He’s not a typical freshman. He’s a little different than the others. He’s very goal driven and very serious,” Munoz said. “He shows his true self at all times, so he is easy to work with.”
Though Zelenkov admits he lacks experience and doesn’t know exactly what to expect at the conference tournament, he said he is eager to compete with what he describes as a close-knit team with strong senior leadership.
“They’ll know that we aren’t a team that has gotten lucky,” he added. “It’s about building that reputation and showing that we have a good program and will continue to have a good program that is only getting better. I want to have that kind of impact on the program and on the school.”
Munoz added that even the most talented collegiate tennis players experience mid-season struggles, as evidenced by the UC Santa Barbara match. Zelenkov, though, changed his approach on the court midway through the spring, which has helped him avoid what Munoz called “the rookie wall.”
“He started off the spring being conservative, but he realized that he couldn’t win consistently unless he plays aggressively,” Munoz said. “Many of the freshmen that I’ve had in the last seven years have hit that wall during the season. He’s not one of them. His entire game is getting better and better. I have complete faith in how he’s going to perform moving forward.”
Zelenkov has proved vulnerable when he plays conservatively and allows for opponents to act as the aggressor. He has learned, however, to use his particularly strong forehand and his considerable power to win points quickly and immediately put his opponents under pressure.
The Colonials nabbed the second seed in the conference tournament after losing their final match of the regular season against new conference foe and top-seeded VCU, 4-2. Despite the team loss, Zelenkov easily defeated his opponent in straight sets, 6-1, 6-2.
Zelenkov will look to build on that personal win as he competes in postseason play for the first time as a college athlete, hoping to continue the poise and focus that his teammates and coaches say have been an asset.
“College tennis is different. Team unity defines how we develop and how well we do. I’ve learned that even when you think you are playing your best there is still chance for improvement,” Zelenkov said. “We definitely should believe that we have a shot to win conference and then make it to NCAAs. I’m excited.”