PHOENIX – Playing tennis matches in the fall is the goal of any college program. Teams like Arizona men’s tennis will go to any length to gain that experience, even if it means splitting the team for a weekend.
Arizona coach Clancy Shields accompanied two of the team’s best singles players, Jonas Ziverts and Colton Smith, in San Francisco for the Battle in the Bay tournament in late September while keeping a close watch on the rest of the team playing in Boston at the Chowderfest tournament. The split weekend is part of a two-month fall schedule that began with the Wildcat Invitational on Sept. 16. Shields would sometimes wake up as early as 6 a.m. to watch his team compete on the East Coast against Texas A&M, Memphis and Harvard.
Competing on opposite coasts, the team shares one goal this fall: Improving for the 2023 spring season to meet lofty goals of excellence.
“The level was really high by a lot of the competitiors, so to play those matches against those guys was a great experience,” Smith said of the tournament.
Shields and his players are unified in setting the NCAA national championship as the team’s ultimate bar to reach next spring, a feat the Wildcats fell short of last season with a second-round loss against North Carolina in the 2022 NCAA men’s tennis championship. The team will seek an undefeated home record, the Pac-12 title and hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, a designation reserved for the top 16 national seeds.
The work starts now.
“I think the fall is the time for us to make the improvements we need to make to put ourselves in that (title) conversation,” Shields said.
This week presented one of the best opportunities of the fall schedule to gain match experience in the ITA Men’s All-American Championships. The event, now in its 43rd edition, included over 400 of the best college players in the men’s singles tournament.
Four Arizona players traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma to participate in the event. Ziverts was one of 48 players nationally who entered the men’s singles tournament from the 64-player main draw. Gustaf Strom, Herman Hoeyeraal and Smith entered in the qualifying draw, bypassing the 256-player pre-qualifying draw.
Entering the week, Ziverts said he wanted to take the lessons learned from his individual practices and team practice sessions to better execute during the All-American Championships.
“I don’t want to try to focus too much on the results but try to play the way I want to play,” Ziverts said before the tournament began. “My goal will be to stay with my gameplay throughout the whole week regardless of winning and losing.”
Strom, Hoeyeraal and Smith won their first-round match in the qualifying draw, however, none of them qualified for the main draw. Ziverts lost his first-round match in the main draw against Stanford sophomore Max Basing. Despite the results, improvement was the priority over wins and losses.
Preparation for fall tournaments in practice is slightly different than the spring season. According to Shields, each player has a different development plan. A 45-minute individual practice session is tailored to that plan before an afternoon team practice.
Smith said the team has not had too many team practices with everyone together. However, that has not stopped his players from practicing with positive spirits.
“We all come out with high energy trying to compete and make each other better,” Smith said. “It’s a little more geared towards getting back in the flow of things. Once we get into the spring, the hours are a little bit shorter and it’s a little more competing.”
Ziverts said the uniqueness of fall practices provides additional time to develop in other areas off the court.
“We’re focusing more on trying to build the physique,” Ziverts said. “We’re doing more in the gym and pushing ourselves more with the weights.”
The practices are useful, but the fall season is about the match experience players gain against other college players. Shields said players develop more from taking part in the major fall tournaments.
“You can practice a new skill, and it may take you 1,000 times in practice to acquire that skill. In a match play situation, it may take you 30 or 40 repetitions,” Shields said. “Having these kids play and put it into a real match experience, I think is invaluable.”
Added Ziverts: “It’s huge to get as many matches as possible in the fall to get used to playing the big points and playing against great opponents. You can’t really practice that. It’s very hard to feel the same tension that you’re feeling when you’re playing these great players at these big events.”
The Wildcats have more major fall tournaments ahead of them. The ITA Division I Men’s Southwest Regional Championships will take place at Pepperdine University starting on Oct. 20. The top 32 men’s singles players and doubles teams in the country will take part in the ITA National Fall Championships in November.
Shields wants Arizona representation in the National Fall Championships this year for the first time in his coaching tenure, but he also recognizes there’s no guarantees at the collegiate level.
“If you can get one guy into the fall Nationals at the end of the year, that’s pretty darn good,” Shields said. “If you can get two, you’re in a special place.”
At the same time, though, Arizona is also not too concerned about individual records or how many people qualify for the National Fall Championships.
“I really just want to see our team go out there and continue to improve and to keep adding things to their game that we’ve been working on,” Shields said. “We’re not trying to peak in September or October. We’re trying to peak in May.”