Familiar faces: Emotions run high as ASU’s Jacob Bullard takes on his former Texas tennis teammates

Jacob Bullard lost his singles match against Cleeve Harper 6-1, 7-6 (7-5), who was his previous doubles partner at Texas. Bullard said it was “definitely a little bit strange.” (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

Bullard, a junior, transferred to ASU in the fall of 2021 after playing in Austin for two years. “It’s been a great experience so far, and I’m really happy to be here,” Bullard said. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

Bullard brings a high-level of skill to the team, his coaches said, as well as leadership and having positive relationships with every player on the men’s tennis team. (Photo by Mary Grace Grabill/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – Arizona State tennis coach Matt Hill began recruiting Jacob Bullard about four years ago when Bullard was a junior in high school in California. Hill’s efforts paid off, too.

It just took a little while.

Bullard, who was consistently ranked among the top 10 nationally in his age group and had a junior International Tennis Federation ranking as high as No. 75, initially signed with Texas.

However, after playing at Texas as a freshman and sophomore, Bullard decided to leave Austin. He said Hill was “probably the first person I called” after he made the decision to enter the NCAA’s transfer portal.

It helped that Bullard already knew ASU players Max McKennon, Spencer Brachman and Murphy Cassone from his days in junior tennis, easing his transition to Tempe. ASU assistant coach Dominic Cotrone said the team was excited to welcome the popular Bullard to the program.

“Jacob has an amazing reputation with so many players and so many coaches as just being a really easy person to get along with and a really great guy off the court,” Cotrone said.

In only ASU’s third match of the spring season, Bullard found himself competing against his old Texas teammates at the Sun Devils’ Whiteman Tennis Center, and that laid-back personality might have come into play, especially in a 1-6, 6-7 (5-7) singles loss to a former Texas doubles partner, Cleeve Harper.

Bullard and Cassone, a freshman, also fell short in their doubles match against Harper and Richard Ciamarra as the Sun Devils fell to the fifth-ranked Longhorns 6-1.

“I thought that I probably could have come out and been a little bit more aggressive in the bigger moments in the first (singles) set, but I thought I did everything I could in the second,” Bullard said. “It was definitely fun out there for sure.”

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“Anytime you’re playing your old school you transfer from, there’s just this added weight and pressure of the match, and I thought Jacob did everything he could to prepare well for the match,” Hill said.

Cotrone said the ASU coaching staff tries to put players in high-pressure situations during practice, preparing them to “handle the pressure situations, once we get into the match.” And he knew that Bullard would be feeling that pressure against his old teammates.

“I think for most of the guys on the team – everyone except Jacob – it was just a normal match,” Cotrone said. “And nobody put much thought into our preparation any differently than we would for any other team. But I know for Jacob, it was a little bit more pressure playing against the team that he transferred from. I thought he did a really good job handling it.”

Hill agreed.

“He played fantastic tennis, had multiple set points, and unfortunately, didn’t get them,” Hill said. “I think he did a great job. He didn’t win this match, but there wasn’t anything more he could have done. It was a productive match for him, even though maybe on the scoreboard it said differently.”

Knowing he would be playing against Harper in both singles and doubles, Bullard admitted it didn’t feel like a typical match.

“There are obviously a lot of emotions there for me, especially for this match,” he said. “I really wanted to win, and it meant a lot. It’s fun that we’re both playing at a good level, getting to compete against each other and (it was) a pretty high-level college match.”

Bullard’s positive attitude and approach have made him a welcomed addition to the ASU team, according to the coaches.

“He’s probably been one of the biggest leaders in the locker room. And I think he’s done a really amazing job as being a new person and having such a strong voice in the locker room,” Cotrone said. “He’s been incredible for us, and we’re just super excited to have him at ASU.”

Hill has seen improvement in Bullard and believes he is well-positioned for a good spring season. The Sun Devils play host to San Diego on Feb. 6 in their next match as they prepare to open Pac-12 play on March 18 at USC.

“He’s been really great. We’ve seen a ton of progress over the last three to four months,” Hill said. “It’s really exciting to see what’s ahead.”

And the coaches are excited about the team’s potential with Bullard in the lineup.

“I really think that Jacob is going to be a huge, huge, huge part of this program as we build it to being one of the best teams in the country,” Hill said.

Mary Grace Grabill meh-ree grays grey-bull (she/her)
Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Mary Grace Grabill expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in film production. Grabill has interned as a photographer with McGaw YMCA Camp Echo and Phoenix Magazine.