Since Conference USA began, the Bulls have been the top dog in men’s tennis, winning three of the young conference’s first six championships.
But this year may be the Bulls’ toughest challenge.Conference USA’s Men’s Tennis Championship has its strongest tournament field ever as it begins play today with first round action at Louisville’s Bass-Rudd Tennis Center.
This year’s field has the most ranked teams ever (five) and has three teams (No. 26 TCU, No. 30 Tulane and No. 32 USF) all ranked ahead of last year’s No. 1 seed USF, which was ranked No. 34 going into the tournament a year ago.
The Bulls (14-4) earned the No. 3 seed and a first round bye. They will take on the winner of No. 6 UAB (13-8) vs. No. 11 Marquette (6-11).
“The stronger the conference we have makes it tougher than in the past,” said Bulls coach Don Barr. “But I’m happy our conference is stronger, we want to get up to (Southeastern Conference) level.”
Conference newcomer TCU will be looking to break a jinx in its first tournament appearance. The No. 1 seed has never won the tournament since its beginning in 1996, when USF won it as a No. 2 seed. The Bulls also took home the title in 1998 as a No. 3 and again in 1999 as a No. 2. The Horned Frogs (10-9) earned the top seed with a tough schedule, including a 4-2 victory vs. Tulane on February 23 and a 5-2 victory vs. No. 21 Arkansas last week. TCU takes on the winner of the No. 8 Charlotte vs. No. 9 Southern Miss matchup in the first round.
Tulane (16-6) is the No. 2 seed and awaits the winner of the No. 7 DePaul vs. No. 10 St. Louis matchup. The Green Wave, who were two slots below the Bulls in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll going into last week, jumped ahead of the Bulls in this week’s poll due to USF’s loss to Ole Miss (ranked No. 4 nationally). Tulane upset the No. 1 seeded Bulls last year in the tournament as the No. 2 seed and also beat the Bulls 4-2 this year on February 22. The Bulls have not forgotten.
“I know we lost to them last year and this year when we played them I lost at No. 4 singles when I shouldn’t have,” Bulls freshman Uli Kiendl said. “I have improved my game since then, and have a lot more confidence now.”
By dropping to the No. 3 seed, the Bulls will start play in the early 8 a.m. match on Friday.
“The time is the least favorable and our opponent will already have a match under their belt,” Barr said.
“So it will be a little bit tougher than I thought it should have been, but we’ve got to prove we’re better than everyone in our conference.”
Also receiving a bye in the first round is No. 4 seed Memphis (18-6). The Tigers (ranked No. 68 in the ITA poll) went 6-0 in conference play during the regular season, and five of their losses have come at the hands of teams ranked in the Top 75 of the ITA.Host Louisville (ranked No. 60) is the No. 5 seed. The Cardinals (9-15) are coming off an upset of No. 35 Virginia Tech last week and will be looking for their second conference title in three years, winning the tournament in 2000. Louisville takes on the No. 12 seed East Carolina in the first round with the winner facing Memphis on Friday.
Barr felt a little slighted by his team’s No. 3 seed, but said it doesn’t really matter once you start playing.
“Our goal all season has been to win it any way we had to, so we are going up there with the mentality that we will play whoever and whenever they want us to.”
The Bulls confidence was given a boost when sophomore Martin Wetzel (ranked No. 88 in singles), who has been nursing a tender left quadriceps, played last Saturday in the match with Jacksonville. “I think it was really good to get out there and play because I knew it would get us feeling better about our chances at the conference (championships),” Wetzel said.
In order for the Bulls to win their fourth championship Wetzel, Kiendl and the rest of the Bulls will need to be at the top of their games because in the Conference USA tournament nothing is for certain.