International roster fueling rebirth of ASU men’s tennis


The Arizona State men’s tennis team goes on the road this weekend to play Washington and No. 41 Oregon.  It’s been 10 years since the Sun Devils made the trip to the Pacific Northwest.

Actually, it’s been 10 years since an ASU men’s tennis team has made a road trip anywhere.

In May of 2008, ASU announced the discontinuation of men’s tennis due to what it called “economic realities experienced over a long period of time.”  Translation:  We’re out of money.

Wrestling and men’s swimming were also included in the budget cut, but those programs found sources of funding and were reinstated shortly after.

The decision to cut men’s tennis was particularly difficult since that was the second-oldest sport on campus, behind only football, which traces its roots to 1897.  With that move, ASU became one of just four teams in the Pac-12 that didn’t offer men’s tennis.

But in May of 2016, Ray Anderson and his wife, Buffie, donated a lead gift of $1 million to get the ball rolling toward a rebirth of the tennis program.  That was just two years after Anderson was hired as the new Vice President for Athletics.

ASU went on to raise $5 million to fund the program, half of the $10 million figured necessary to continue operating the program.

Once Anderson’s money was on the table, the school wasted no time in hiring a new head coach.  In July of 2016, Matt Hill was hired away from the University of South Florida where he had taken that program to three consecutive American Athletic Conference team championships in four years.  Two of his recruiting classes had been ranked in the nation’s top 10.

The man he replaced was an institution on the ASU campus.  Lou Belken had directed the program for 25 years before it was suddenly pulled out from beneath him.

Hill wasted no time in starting up his own legacy.  But he went about it in ways far different from how Belken operated.

Within a month, Hill had his assistant coach.  He plucked Michal Kokta from Purdue, where he had been an assistant for the previous two years, helping lead the Boilermakers to a huge turnaround.

But then he began doing something different from the way most programs operate.  Hill assembled a group of part-time consultants that he felt could bring to his program a level of sports science knowledge, training, and medical care.  This team would work with both the men’s and women’s programs.

Mark Kovacs, who is the current Executive Director of the International Tennis Performance Association, offers his expertise as the sports science advisor, working in the areas of performance and injury prevention.  Todd Ellenbecker, the clinic director of Physiotherapy Associates in Scottsdale, serves as the sports medicine advisor.  And Bret Waltz, a private physical therapist to players on the ATP and WTA Tour, is the program’s conditioning coach.

Kovacs, who is based in Atlanta, does his consulting remotely, with periodic visits to the Tempe campus.

Much of Hill’s coaching philosophy is built on the need to prepare his players for the professional game.  He feels that providing access to these professionals gives the ASU program something most other college programs can’t offer.  This approach also helps narrow the gap between young players coming out of college and those already playing professionally who have matured in their physical development.

Hill has also gone heavily international is his recruiting.  This year’s recruiting class was ranked No. 5 nationally with a majority of those on the roster from Europe. The countries represented include Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, and Great Britain.

Mixing together 10 or so different dialects was a bit of a challenge, but there seems to be little trouble communicating now.

And just to add a little local flavor, Hill brought on board freshman Carsyn Smith from Scottsdale.  Smith attended Laurel Springs High School in California, but grew up playing for the The Players Academy in Scottsdale.

The addition of so many players from outside the United States was partly out of necessity.  By the time Hill was hired, he says that more than 80 percent of those he would have recruited were already committed to other programs.

However the results so far are encouraging.  This year’s squad lost its first two conference matches, but it wasn’t a surprise; Stanford was ranked No. 3 in the country and Ohio State No. 4.  The Devils are 11-7 overall and earlier in the season went on an eight-match win streak that earned them the No. 13 spot in the ITA Division I National Team Rankings.

That last sweep through the Pacific Northwest in 2008 resulted in wins over both Oregon, ranked No. 38 at the time, and No. 40 Washington.

It will be interesting to see if history repeats this weekend, a decade later.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)