By Roderick M. Wilbon, Sports Editor
It is the second week of the U.S. Open and all the big names are on the court at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Tennis has started somewhere else too—on the campus of University of Missouri-St. Louis. The Men’s and Women’s teams are geared up for this 2017 season and under Head Coach Rick Gyllenborg, they have everything needed to succeed.
The 2015 UMSL Women’s Tennis team thought they were good enough to go to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. With a chip on their shoulder they went 17-8 overall and 4-2 in the regular-season conference. They made a good run in the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament, but were missing that edge to eat the chip.
The 2015 UMSL Men’s Tennis team had the edge as well as the chip on their shoulder. Their overall record of 17-6 but 4-1 in the regular season conference play put them in a good position. They would go on to lose in the Semifinals to Indianapolis in the GLVC 0-5. Though it garnered them a NCAA Midwest Regional Bid, where they would face Grand Valley State and lose 1-5.
There seems to be parity between the seasons of Men’s and Women’s Tennis teams. Last season 2016 was no different—we saw the Women’s team go big. Coming in with that same chip on their shoulder they would go 14-3 overall and 5-1 in the conference. The only team that could stop them was Drury who they lost to once in the regular season, once in the GLVC Tournament, and finally in the UMSL Women’s second NCAA Tournament Bid. Each match was close, with the Tritons losing by 4-5, 4-5, and 5-4. Women’s Tennis finally devoured the chip on their shoulder; which left the question: would they be hungry for the 2017 season?
Men’s Tennis, unfortunately, took a step back last season in 2016. The overall record of 7-6 and 3-2 in regular season conference play put them in a bad spot. They entered the GLVC Tournament against Lewis, not Drury or Rockhurst. “We knew the match-ups, we knew which games were ours, we knew which we’d lose, and the questionable ones,” said Coach Gyllenborg. “We winded up losing the ones we thought we’d win and winning the ones we thought we’d lose.” The result was a 3-5 loss to Lewis to end the season for UMSL Men’s Tennis.
The Men’s and Women’s tennis teams practiced the same day with the men on one side of the tennis court and women on the other. They start with stretching, then jogging, no balls and no rackets yet. The drills come in next, rackets in hand, taking swings, running baseline to half court, back to baseline and then all the way to the net. The players are friendly toward one- another and the camaraderie can be seen. There is a hierarchy for regular positions, single players, and double players.
Tennis balls entering the court, however, changes the atmosphere completely. Practice for rallies begin and changes take place in players. Facial expressions shift, the air becomes dense, competitiveness comes out.
“I have a few Tom Brady’s out there on the Men’s and Women’s sides,” says Coach Gyllenborg. Most noticeable for the women’s side is Salome Bleuler, junior, psychology and business. She’s bringing it not just in matches, but in practice too. In 2016 Bleuler went 17-7 in singles and 19-8 in doubles and named an Academic All-GLVC selection. “It’s amazing to be part of the team that achieved being ranked 49 in the NCAA Tournament,” said Bleuler. “The team is looking to achieve the same thing if not more and I personally want to be ranked higher, be better and stronger.”
On the men’s side, Alberto Maza, Captain, senior, finance, is leading the charge in doubles strategy. “We had a up and down season and I thought we would turn it around in the GLVC Tournament,” said Maza. “We played well in the doubles, but in the singles, we kind of fell flat, which ended our season. We have two new freshmen coming in and I just hope they bring the emotion to add to this team, so that we can achieve our goals.”
Ben-Hur Kasprzak, sophomore, business administration, is in a league of his own. The Super Rookie is a presence on the court, 6’1, with a Kevin Durant wingspan. Kasprzak looks for perfection in himself, and won’t stand for anything less. Kasprzak went 14-9 in singles and 14-9 in doubles. He garnered GLVC Freshman of the Year, ITA Midwest Region Rookie of the Year, and an Academic All-GLVC selection. “I played well last year and I think I can play better this year,” said Kasprzak. “I really want to win the ITA Midwest Regional. I want to be the best player in the region, someone the team can count on.”
Coach Gyllenborg watches intently in practice, not to just coach the basics of tennis, but to observe everyone’s style of play. “I’ve adjusted and matured to know how to coach the difference between Men’s and Women’s tennis and just tweak the individual player’s style. The hardest part of the job is making individuals buy into a team sport, because college tennis is a team sport,” said Gyllenborg. “No spot is better than the other; I would rather have a bunch of winners than starters. In college tennis, your point for winning counts as much as the others for the team.”