Jan. 22, 2014
BY ROBBY VERONESI
Another spring season, another ITA Kick-off Weekend in Knoxville. Once again, the University of Tennessee will play host to one of the ITA's qualifying two-day tournaments this Saturday and Sunday at the Goodfriend Indoor Tennis Center.
This year, the No. 6 Vols welcome Virginia Commonwealth University, North Carolina State and Michigan State for a spot at the 2014 ITA National Indoor Championships this February in College Station, Texas.
Tennessee is playing with some momentum, winning all four matches in their two doubleheaders over the weekend. The spring portion of the schedule started with a pair of 7-0 wins over Tennessee Tech and Eastern Kentucky, a hard-fought 5-2 victory over East Tennessee State, and ended with another shutout against Murray State.
Here are some other tidbits to keep in mind in preparation for the weekend:
1. Good Ole Rocky Top...
In the six years since the ITA decided to shift its tournament from an invitational style to its current state involving qualifiers at campus sites, the Goodfriend Tennis Center has been host to five Kick-off Weekends (the only year where UT has not hosted was the 2012-13 season, when they went to Champaign, Ill.).
Playing on Rocky Top has certainly been kind to the Big Orange. Since 2009, the Vols are 8-0 at home during Kick-off matches by a combined score of 43-8. Last season, No. 19 UT went on the road to the University of Illinois to face the No. 16 Illini and No. 18 North Carolina and won both matches, 4-0 and 4-1 respectively.
This year, Knoxville returns as a host site. In a draft-style procedure, schools ranked No. 1-16 (with the exception of hosts Texas A&M, who automatically qualify) are designated as host schools. The next round of ranked teams select where they want to play, and so on, until all 64 spots selected.
After the selection process, No. 30 VCU, No. 34 NC State and No. 49 Michigan State all will come to UT, looking to advance to the ITA National Indoor Championships on the road.
Both VCU and Michigan State have been here before for a similar experience. In 2010, VCU came to Knoxville, only to lose to South Carolina on day one. UT has never played the Rams in this tournament, but Sparty and Smokey are familiar enough with each other.
On an intense and heated January Sunday in 2012, the Vols needed a match-clinching win at the No. 4 spot by then-sophomore Jarryd Chaplin, 6-4, 6-3, over MSU's Austin Brooks. The Vols won 4-2, then went on to beat SEC rival Mississippi, 4-3, to advance the National Championships in Charlottesville, Va.
Mikelis Libietis and Brandon Fickey also picked up key singles victories at the No. 1 and 2 spots respectively in that match, while Libietis and Hunter Reese (then ranked No. 33 in the country) picked up one of UT's doubles wins on their way to clinching the doubles point.
Brooks might have graduated from East Lansing, but there are several Spartans who were on the team for this last meeting. Seniors Drew Lied and Andrew Pfister were the only Spartans to record wins against Tennessee, while juniors Harry Jadun and Gijs Linders saw playing time as well.
3. A Dose of Doubles Dominance
So far in the young spring season, the crucial doubles point has gone the way of the Vols in all four matches, taking about 20 minutes to wrap up during each match of UT's opening weekend this season. The Vols have taken care of its business, thanks in part to its two ranked pairs.
It starts at the top for Tennessee, where Libietis and Reese make up the top-ranked pair in college tennis this year. In their win against ETSU Monday, the duo achieved their 51st win together, coming on the heels of an ITA All-American Championship victory and a finals berth in the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championship this past fall.
With all the success of Libietis and Reese at the top, it's the pair in the No. 2 slot that is on a hotter tear so far. The No. 28 duo of Fickey and Chaplin currently own a nine-match winning streak, a career-high for the tandem. The two have caused nightmares for everybody, outscoring their last three opponents, 24-5.