Jan. 1, 2009
Matt Knoll doesn't even try to pin the blame on assistant coach Kyle Spencer or throw him under the bus for a 2009 Baylor men's tennis schedule that borders on ridiculous.
The Bears will play six of the top seven teams from last year's season-ending rankings, including home matches against No. 2 Virginia, No. 5 UCLA, No. 6 Mississippi and No. 7 USC. And just in case top-ranked Georgia feels slighted, Baylor could always draw the Bulldogs at the ITA National Men's Team Indoor Championships in Chicago.
"Our philosophy is that we want to play everybody that we can," said Knoll, who's in his 13th season heading a program that he built into a national power, winning the 2004 national championship and making four consecutive trips to the semifinals or better.
With that unbelievable success has come the kind of job security it takes to schedule a Who's Who list of the best programs in college tennis. Some of the tradition-rich teams like Stanford and Pepperdine that will visit the Baylor Tennis Center wouldn't even take Knoll's calls when he took this job in 1996.
"Most teams wouldn't play us," Knoll said. "But the ones that would, you had to play them at their place. And then the next thing is you'd have to beat them at their place before they'd even consider coming to your place. Which is tough. It's always tougher to win on the road. And through a lot of years of hard work and consistent success, we've been able to get some people on the schedule."
It's also helped to have the sponsorship of Hewlett Packard to bring in a team like No. 21 Stanford for the Hewlett Packard Cup on March 24. Former Baylor tennis player and grad Mark Hurd is CEO for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett Packard.
"Stanford wouldn't be coming if the sponsorship wasn't in place, because they just won't travel," Knoll said. "I think in our sport maybe as much or more than any other, there have been a small number of schools that have benefitted from the way their conference schedule works, and they haven't had to travel. The Pac-10 has a double round-robin. So if you're Stanford, you've got UCLA, USC, Cal and Washington twice each year, once at home. So your motivation to travel goes way down. You've got a lot of top-5 matches on your schedule at home.
"But I think part of it is that tennis has become a little deeper. And I think that's helped motivate some of those schools to maybe look outside their conference. I know UCLA, for example, started looking around when the depth of the country kind of changed."
The Bears open their home schedule with a first-round qualifier for the ITA National Indoor Championships on Jan. 30 against Utah. But the meat of their home slate will come in February and March, when they host No. 5 UCLA (Feb. 22) and No. 6 Mississippi (Feb. 27) back-to-back and then go through a gauntlet of No. 2 Virginia (March 13), No. 7 USC, No. 21 Stanford and 12th-ranked Pepperdine (March 29) in a stretch of seven consecutive home matches in 17 days.
"If we're a (Number) 15 to 20 team in the country, playing this schedule, we're not going to win that much," Knoll said. "We better be pretty good. So that's a little bit of a risk that you take when you make your schedule far enough out that some things could happen. You don't know what's going to happen all the time. We just have to have the faith that we're going to be a high, high-level team and build a schedule that fits the team."
One change that Knoll has had to make is how he approaches practice. There were times, he said, when he tended to push the players too hard in practice and wore them out prior to matches.
"I think if you're playing a bunch of schools that you're killing, then it gives you a chance to really beat them up in practice, because they're not getting that in the matches," he said. "But I think in our case, we have to really take our foot off the accelerator in practice, because they're getting thrashed around in matches.
And that's not always easy. I think we've certainly made the mistake of overdoing it. And it's something that we're going to have to be aware of, because there is a chance that you'd get to the end of the year and you'd just be beat into a pulp. But I hope that we'll be smart enough about it and hopefully we'll be good enough."
Even after losing All-American Lars Poerschke, Knoll believes the Bears' "talent level is going to be plenty good enough."
Junior Denes Lukacs is a returning All-American who was No. 2 nationally in the preseason rankings. Joining him in the lineup are juniors Dominik Mueller and Attila Bucko, sophomore Jordan Rux and senior David Galic, who sat out the fall semester.
Freshmen Marc Bruche and Julian Bley made their collegiate debuts in the fall and "made unbelievable progress." But the Bears are also adding a transfer in January who will "help us a lot," Knoll said.
"We've got good competition up and down the lineup," Knoll said. "We're just excited to get out there. And a lot of it's going to come down to how much we improve and how much we continue to stay focused on the things that we need to focus on."
The Bears will begin their spring schedule with a USTA Futures tournament next week in Puerto Rico, while their first collegiate action will come at the Sherwood Invitational Jan. 16-18 in Sherwood, Calif.