By Nate Tenopir, Editor-in-Chief
Finding the right lineup is critical to success for any team. In college tennis, it may be even more so. Although a team can secure a point by winning two of three doubles matches, six of seven points are determined in singles.
Thus, setting the top six has been UNO coach Mike Saniuk’s biggest decision of the week. Fortunately he doesn’t spend too much time or energy mulling over the lineup for his women’s team.
With only seven available players, the participants, and their spots in the order, remain fairly consistent.
“The same people are gonna be playing; it’s just a matter of where they’re gonna be playing,” Saniuk said. “A lot of coaches will try to matchup against certain players, but it’s hit or miss if one person is changed in the lineup because then the matchup you planned for is completely done. I just play straight up in order of strength. On the women’s side there isn’t a lot that goes into it other than these are my top six players and they’re gonna play.”
When Saniuk picks out his top player, he most often goes with senior Alex Tran on the women’s side. In 20 matches Tran has appeared in the Mavs No. 1 position 16 times.
Tran’s record in those 16 matches is 9-7.
Lately she’s been especially good. When Tran defeated Shelby Hullett of IUPUI 7-6, 4-4 it gave her five straight wins.
Since beginning her winning streak at Bradley, only one competitor has managed to steal a set away from Tran. But even when that happened Saturday afternoon, Tran recovered to take a 5-2 lead in the third set before her opponent retired.
She finished 2013 with the most wins on the team and was relied on most regularly in the first position. Unfortunately for UNO, her future with the team is uncertain.
Tran has enough credits in her major to graduate, but is considering graduate school or picking up a double major so she can continue her college career next year.
The three times Tran was not playing at No. 1 were the final three matches of the spring break trip to Hilton Head, S.C.
With Tran’s future uncertain, Saniuk looked to freshman Molly Matricardi to take the lead.
“I wanted to see what Molly would be able to do put into that pressure situation of playing No. 1 as a true freshman,” Saniuk said.
Matricardi’s results were somewhat mixed. Against Georgia Southern she fell to her opponent in straight sets 6-1, 6-1, recovered to beat a player from Kutztown 6-3, 6-3 two days later then again fell in straight sets to a player from Kansas 6-2, 6-2.
Regardless of the up and down experiment Matricardi had as a No. 1, Saniuk said he expects big things in the future.
“It says a lot about her game, just where she’s at,” Saniuk said. “Where she’s at now, for me to even consider her playing in the No. 1 spot says a lot about her game and her consistency and her overall demeanor and attitude on the court.”
“It’s pretty rare that a team would have a freshman up top. You don’t see that a whole lot, especially a true freshman. It tells you how good of a tennis player she is and how big and bright of a future she has over the next three years.”
Saniuk doesn’t have quite the same easy decision for the men’s team. His roster for the men’s team includes nine players, six of whom have seen action in more than 10 matches.
Conner Tieszen has played at men’s No. 1 18 times, compiling a record of 5-13. Only one other player, John Ellis, has seen any time in the top spot.
“On the men’s side, it’s a little different,” Saniuk said. “I usually don’t know until a day out, and I take a lot of things into consideration. Usually who’s playing the best at that particular time will get the nod.”
If he did try to over-analyze the potential matchups, Saniuk said it often wouldn’t do any good. In college tennis there’s only so much information available, so he generally chooses to look inwards rather than outwards to determine how to set his six singles.
“It’s basically who’s putting forth time in the weight room, who’s putting time in on the court and who’s the consistent player of the bunch,” Saniuk said. “Sometimes it’s my better players; sometimes it’s not my better players. It’s all about who’s stepping up at certain occasions.”
Men’s second position has been a little bit more of a match-to-match decision. Ellis has played in the spot eight times going 1-7 while Eric McKnight has competed at No. 2 seven times and is 3-4.
Connor Larson (6-11) has gotten the most time at No. 3, Carlos Ramos Salazar (6-12) is usually fourth and Matt Frost (6-10) has gotten the most opportunities at fifth and sixth.
“You need your six best players out there that are gonna get you wins,” Saniuk said. “You can’t draw up team plans, can’t change defense against a particular player. It’s literally one-on-one. A lot of times you’re just going with your best six available players.”
As a former college player and now coach, Saniuk is in a unique position to understand how lineup fluctuations can have an effect. Like most athletes, Saniuk said tennis players get just as superstitious and have specific rituals they follow before each match.
Knowing where they stand in the lineup helps bring some comfort to preparation. Yet, as a coach Saniuk also wants to create competition and make sure his team realizes everyone has a shot to get playing time.
“From the coaching stand point you always want to say my seventh player can crack into my top six,” Saniuk said. “There’s always competition. Competition is gonna breed success and make us better.”
“The fact that we know who our top six are right now is nice for the players, but ultimately as a coach, I would like to have eight quality players to where I could play any of my eight at any time.”