Since Brian Boland first became head coach of the Virginia men's tennis team in 2002, his team has performed exceptionally well during regular-season play, finishing as the nation's top-ranked team each of the past four years. But this year's team, Boland has said, is the best he's coached, compiling a perfect regular-season record while surrendering no more than two points against any opponent.
As the team heads to Cary, N.C., Friday to begin ACC Tournament play, Boland has yet another chance to earn the one victory which has continued to elude the Virginia program: a national championship.
But the going will not be easy, he stressed. Many of his players are coping with injuries or illnesses they have sustained during recent weeks - some of which have been the result of a long, grueling season, and others which have been unrelated to tennis. None of the injuries or illnesses are likely to sideline his players, but they may make playing "uncomfortable" when No. 1 Virginia (26-0, 11-0 ACC) faces the ACC's best competition in its final tune-up before the quest for a first NCAA title begins in mid-May.
"The guys are succeeding, but they're succeeding under way harder circumstances than they have in the past, and I give a lot of credit to the guys and their ability to deal with adversity," Boland said.\nSenior Sanam Singh, who has been suffering from a stomach ailment, lost two down-to-the-wire matches against Wake Forest and Clemson during the past two weeks, but he rebounded against Georgia Tech Saturday by winning in straight sets. Singh said yesterday the discomfort continues to bother him, and he is taking medication to help him recover before Friday's match. Junior Drew Courtney, who watched practice yesterday from a sideline bench while wearing a cast around his ankle, is expected to play this weekend after missing the team's last four matches.
And freshman Justin Shane - who, along with sophomore Julen Uriguen, filled in for Singh and Courtney during doubles matches last weekend - sustained an injury to his knee last Thursday, which impaired his movement and contributed to a straight-set singles loss against Georgia Tech.
Boland could not point to one factor which has led to the greater number of injuries his team has sustained, but said he felt confident in his team's ability to surmount their injuries and perform well during the course of postseason play.
"Certainly the team has worked extremely hard and pushed themselves at times beyond what they thought their limitations were, but I wouldn't even attribute it to that," Boland said. "I think sometimes it just happens."
As the team prepares for the conference tournament, Boland said he was not focused on any individual team or player and preferred his players to remain "mentally and emotionally engaged" in the way they approach each match.
Singh pointed to North Carolina and Duke, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the tournament, as teams which might stretch the Cavaliers' lineup during matches this weekend should either of them advance to the later rounds. But Singh stressed that the tournament's lower seeds boast strong players which might challenge the Cavaliers at times, meaning the team has to be ready for all challengers.
"It's tough to play everyone, especially in a tournament," Singh said. "No match is going to come easy. Every match is going to be tight; we need everyone to be healthy, and we're still working on that."
The ACC's top teams - No. 13 Duke, No. 15 North Carolina and No. 16 Georgia Tech - likely will loom later in the tournament for the Cavaliers, should they win their early-round matches. Duke, the No. 3 seed in the tournament, boasts two of the nation's best players in sophomore Henrique Cunha and senior Reid Carleton but suffered a narrow 4-3 loss against North Carolina last week and also has lost against top teams such as Michigan, Pepperdine and California. During a home match April 1, Virginia beat the Blue Devils, 6-1, but Cunha knocked off Shabaz at the No. 1 singles spot in straight sets.
North Carolina lacks a star player such as Cunha or Carleton but has a consistently strong lineup which has performed well top-to-bottom. Sophomore Jose Hernandez, North Carolina's top player, downed Shabaz in three sets during a match April 3 and also beat Cunha in three sets during the Tar Heels' victory against Duke last week. Junior Brennan Boyajian, North Carolina's No. 2 singles player, beat Carleton during that match, 6-1, 6-1.
Georgia Tech, which the Cavaliers topped last weekend, stretched Virginia during the doubles point but wilted during singles play. The Yellow Jackets opened with an 8-0 win at the No. 2 spot but lost at No. 1 and No. 3. In singles, only Shane, who was struggling with a knee injury, lost against Georgia Tech; the rest of Virginia's lineup won easily.
The Cavaliers face either No. 44 Florida State or No. 48 Maryland Friday at 9 a.m. in the quarterfinals after receiving a first-round bye. The tournament concludes Sunday.