Men’s tennis leans on experience, leadership ahead of fall slate

Media Credit: File Photo by Sabrina Godin | Assistant Photo Editor

Tennis veterans make up most of the men's team this season, giving the squad an edge over its competitors.

Men’s tennis relied on its experienced roster ahead of its first competition at the Joe Hunt Invitational this weekend.

Leadership and experience are the names of the game for the Colonials after fielding a majority freshman squad last year. Head coach Rob Castille and sophomore Zicheng Zeng said the team’s prior experience early in the season will give players an edge over their opponents this season.

“Last year when we were freshmen, we were really trepidatious the first time we were playing dual matches together,” Zeng said. “I think with this year, we’ve gained a lot of experience, and we also took a lot of time to reflect on the journey we had last year.”

Men’s tennis rostered seven sophomores and two seniors. Last season, six freshmen, two juniors and one senior comprised the team.

This season will be Castille’s first full fall slate with the Colonials after joining the team in the middle of the 2018 fall season and missing two tournaments. Former head coach David MacPherson resigned about two weeks before the fall semester, and former assistant coach Damian Farinola helmed the squad until Castille stepped in.

Last year, the team held a 7–14 overall record. In Atlantic 10 play, the squad nabbed five wins and suffered three losses. Dayton eliminated the Colonials in the quarterfinals of the A-10 Championship.

Zeng said Castille conducted individual practices throughout the week to hone in players’ specific skills and techniques. Zeng said the personal training allowed him to focus on the mechanics of his forehand and practice drills specific to his technique.

“I tend to hit a lot of flat balls,” Zeng said. “My coach encouraged me to use a lot of spin, to hit heavier balls to push the opponent out and use spin to become more aggressive on the court.”

Zeng played exclusively at the No. 1 spot for the Colonials last season, going 16–18 and 5–2 in conference play. He said his freshman year on the court exposed him to a higher level of play that will allow him to analyze where he went wrong and rectify his shortcomings this season.

“I feel like I’ve matured a lot,” Zeng said. “Through those experiences – even if I feel nervous or was hesitant on the court or during the match – I think I’m able to replay those moments back, last year, and then find solutions to solve those problems on the court.”

He added that the team is focused on improving mental strength and adaptability to differing play on the court. Castille has implemented rules, like caring for rackets, in practice to ensure players are careful in their play.

“That’s the same kind of rules we have to apply during the match, so we abide by those rules very seriously,” Zeng said.

Castille added that the team needs to focus on elements of play that are within its control and place less of an emphasis on factors like poor weather conditions and bad line calls.

“I’m looking for the guys across the board to compete really well,” Castille said. “We preach that there’s a big difference between playing well and competing well. We try to focus a lot on the things that are within our control.”

At the Joe Hunt Invitational, two Colonials — sophomore Ben Barnett and senior Dennis Afanasev — went perfect in singles play, winning all three of their respective matches. Zeng defaulted on his three matches, dropping them all as a result. Sophomores Ethan Jacobs and Lawrence Sciglitano recorded one loss, and sophomores Hanyu Liu and Ryan Navarro each recorded two singles losses over the course of the tournament.

The doubles duos of Barnett and Zeng, Liu and sophomore Michael Barsky, Navarro and Jacobs and senior Jakub Behu and Sciglitano won each of their matches.

The squad welcomed Jacobs this season. He played at the No. 1 spot at Bucknell, boasting an 18–10 singles record and a First-Team All Patriot League nod.

“There’s a good foundation there, but we have to improve some things,” Castille said. “I think just repetition at the net and he’ll handle it better and get just a little more confident in there. I think he’s better at the net than I think he thinks he is.”

Castille also pointed to seniors Jakub Behun and Dennis Afansev as leaders for the team in terms of experience, but a slew of players have taken on an active role in leading the team. Sophomores Ben Barnett, Lawrence Sciglitano, Ryan Navarro and Zeng are members of the Leadership Academy, which Castille said will improve their relationship with the team on and off the court.

“It’s going to be a great program, and I’m excited for when it’s their time to take over the reins and lead a team that they’re going to be really well prepared,” Castille said.

The Colonials are back in action Oct. 11 for the Navy Blue Invite.

Emily Maise contributed reporting.

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