The Rice men’s tennis team began the season ranked No. 58 in the country. Over the course of their winningest season in 12 years, however, the Owls have moved all the way up to No. 26 and entered the Conference USA tournament as the top seed. This weekend, Rice will host the conference championships with a chance to claim their first Conference USA title since 2010. According to head coach Efe Ustundag, the team has received improved contributions from each of its players.
“I think a lot of the right pieces are coming into play,” Ustundag said. “We’ve had a couple of good freshmen join the team this year and make a big impact, [junior] Tommy Bennett who was redshirted due to injury last year is back and a few of the people who are still here are continuing to improve and get better.”
The two freshmen, Emmanuel Llamas and Jake Hansen, have each made strong contributions. Llamas has posted a 17-10 singles record while Hansen has gone 19-6. The duo has gone 22-8 as a doubles team. According to Ustundag, they have transitioned to college tennis with ease.
“They fit in with the team and gelled very very quickly,” Ustundag said. “There was really hardly any adjustment period. [Hansen] came in and started producing from day one, and [Llamas] was a bit of a work in progress but he certainly bought into what we were trying to do. We are seeing the fruits of his labor late in the season.”
The Owls went 20-7 in the regular season, their first 20-win season since 2004 when they advanced to the NCAA tournament sweet sixteen. They enter the Conference USA tournament as the No. 1 seed for the second straight year. Despite the high seed, Ustundag said he does not believe the team’s performance has greatly exceeded expectations.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we exceeded expectations by being the first seed,” Ustundag said. “Certainly our national ranking, though, if you had said at the beginning of the year that we were going to be around the top-25 I would have said that might be a bit of a stretch.”
Last year, Rice fell to the University of Texas, San Antonio in the tournament final. This year, the Owls play the Roadrunners in the first round. Ustundag said that although there will be some motivation to get revenge against UTSA, the team will be focused more on winning the tournament.
“Revenge is an interesting word,” Ustundag said. “We already played UTSA once this year so we got a chance to get some of that out of our system. Now we are focused on getting after our goals to win the conference at home in front of our fans.”
Ustundag is hopeful that the home-court advantage can help propel the Owls to victory. He said that the support from the fans this year has been very impressive.
“This year it’s been a great home court advantage,” Ustundag said. “Fans are able to directly sit behind and have an impact on the outcome of the match. It felt like Rice tennis fans of both the men and the women have really become the seventh man.”
While the fan support has been helpful to the Owls thus far, it is possible for fan conduct to lead to penalty points against Rice. If fans attempt to personally attack opposing players with cheers or try to have a direct conversation with the opposing team, the umpire may institute a point penalty. Ustundag said he hopes fans will find a way to support Rice without being overly negative.
“We can be a lot more creative in finding ways to fire up our guys while demoralizing the opposition without getting into direct contact, direct conversation,” Ustundag said. “We need to keep the focus on our side of the net.”
The Owls will try to make sure that their fans have a lot to cheer about this weekend when their tournament begins on Friday at 2 p.m. at George R. Brown Tennis Center against UTSA. The tournament continues all weekend with the semifinals on Saturday and the championship match on Sunday. All matches are hosted by Rice.