The last time there was American Athletic Conference Tennis Championship, in 2019, the UCF Knights Women’s Tennis team came out victorious.
Last spring, the Men’s Team’s Gabriel Decamps became the first Knight in program history to advance past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Men’s Tennis Singles Championship and Trey Hilderbrand and Bodgan Pavel were the No. 5-ranked doubles pair in the country.
However, both teams, after having begun their spring seasons ranked in the Top 15, are winless against ranked teams so far this season.
So, this article breaks down the past two weeks for both teams to see what has led to these records and what could be in store for these teams as their season continues.
Women’s Tennis Looks Tough
The UCF Women’s Tennis team has gotten off to a good start but had its first stumble this season in the ITA Kickoff Weekend.
Despite no appearances from the team’s two ranked pairs (No. 50-ranked Evgeniya Levashova/Valeriya Zeleva and No. 55-ranked Marie Mattel/Nandini Sharma), the team has still managed to go 8-5 in doubles matches so far this season.
However, even without the partner she’s in a ranked pair with, senior Evgeniya Levashova has found success with sophomore Nadja Bay Christians with the pair going 3-0 so far this season.
One other reason why these doubles pairings have not been seen yet is due to their components assisting in the development of the team’s two true freshmen: Sophia Biolay and Noel Saidenova.
Per head coach Bryan Konkiecko, issues acquiring visas stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic meant that they did not arrive on campus until January, meaning less time for Koniecko and staff to have them practice with the other players to see who would make the most effective doubles pairing.
So, for ITA Kickoff Weekend, Saidenova paired up with junior Marie Mattel, though they went 0-2.
However, Saidenova would find success the following weekend, going 2-0 in doubles matches. Against Virginia, she got a 6-3 doubles victory with redshirt junior Nandini Sharma while she teamed up with Christians to get a 6-2 victory in her doubles match against Georgia Southern.
Biolay has also found success with Sharma. During ITA Kickoff Weekend, the duo beat UC Santa Barbara’s Camille Kiss and Filippa Bruu-Syverson, 6-4, to go 2-0 for the season.
The following day, Biolay was paired up with Zeleva for the first time against Auburn’s Ariana Arseneault and Selin Ovunc. While they did lose, 7-6 (7-4), it was a close loss.
She would rebound the next weekend against Georgia Southern’s Sophie Wagemaker and Paula Hijos, where she got a 6-1 doubles win. This time, she paired with sophomore Jaleesa Leslie.
As of this article’s publishing, Biolay and Saidenova have now each had three different doubles partners.
“We have to be prepared for any sort of different pairings we might have,” Koniecko said. “I think it’s been a strong suit of ours in the past, our doubles, and trying to keep everyone on the same page, so we don’t only have to rely on chemistry.”
The importance of doubles to the team comes into focus when accounting for the 14-12 overall team singles record so far this season.
The team went 3-2 against UC Santa Barbara, 0-3 against Auburn, 2-4 against Virginia, and 6-0 against Georgia Southern.
Main singles contributors returning this season include No. 37-ranked Levashova, No. 64-ranked Zeleva, No. 102-ranked Mattel, Sharma, and Leslie.
Konkiecko praised Levashova’s performance in the fall season, which included a Final Four appearance in the ITA Regionals. He described Zeleva as a “rock” for the team, praised Sharma’s work ethic and ability to lead by example, and said that Mattel’s made a “big jump level-wise from last year.”
Additionally, he said he’s excited about the futures of Leslie and the team’s two freshmen: Biolay and Saidenova.
As for the rest of the team, Koniecko said that Christians will “help the team out in a lot of ways” this season after being hampered last season with a strained shoulder.
Speaking of injuries, Koniecko said sophomore Marion Deloziere will likely redshirt this year with a knee injury and redshirt freshman Anique Kattenberg is working her way back from a foot injury that has held her out for a couple of weeks.
However, Koniecko said there are not many players like Kattenberg who have “explosiveness on her serve and a forehand like she does.” Such traits, Koniecko said, make him think she has a bright career ahead of her.
So far, every player that’s played a singles match this spring has won a match. The only exceptions are Zeleva, who only played her first match of the spring against Auburn, and Levashova, who has only had one match (a loss) continue to completion.
However, in a dual-match tennis format, one player cannot win it for the team alone.
“We’re really a deep as a team,” Koniecko said. “We have a lot of talent and we’re just trying to teach ‘em that that’s not the only thing that wins. We have to stack good days on top of good days and hopefully, we get to where we want to be.”
The No. 18-ranked Knights will have next week off before traveling to LSU to take on the Tigers on Feb. 18 at 6 p.m..
Following that, the team has a two-day jaunt in southern Florida, where they will take on the No. 23-ranked Miami (FL) on Sunday, Feb. 20 at noon. The next day, the team will have another noon matchup against Florida International.
Men’s Tennis Starts Rough
As for the UCF Men’s Tennis team, they managed to get their first win of the season during ITA Kickoff Weekend against Louisville, 4-3. However, the following day, they fell short in the ITA Kickoff Championship to then-No. 14-ranked Stanford, 4-0.
In doubles action, juniors Lleyton Cronje and Bogdan Pavel won both of their doubles matches during ITA Kickoff Weekend, including one against No. 8-ranked pair Arthur Fery and Alexandre Rotsaert of Stanford, 6-3.
Over the offseason, the team lost Juan Pablo Mazzuchi and Gabriel Decamps, who were a part of all but one of the four doubles pairs that had winning records last season.
The only pairing that had a winning record last season that is back this season is junior Trey Hilderbrand and Pavel, who went 11-3 last season and is currently ranked No. 22 in the nation.
Additionally, Hilderbrand is ranked again in the Top 60 doubles pairs in the nation with Lleyton Cronje at No. 41. Yet, neither pairing has made an appearance so far this season. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Cronje and Pavel’s victory over a Top 10-ranked pair and 3-2 record so far this season show signs of promise from them, which can help from a flexibility standpoint just in case Hilderbrand has to be held out of a match.
As for Hilderbrand himself, he has spent these early spring matches pairing up with the team’s younger players with mixed success.
He was first paired with freshman JC Roddick, but their first matchup against Georgia went unfinished, halted with a 5-5 score, and their last matchup together, against Florida, ended in a 6-1 loss.
Since then, Hilderbrand has been paired with another freshman, Cooper White. This pair has found more success, going 2-2 overall on the season, including a 7-5 win against No. 19-ranked doubles pair Jakob Schnaitter and Siddhant Banthia of Wake Forest.
Once again, a win against a ranked opponent with White shows some promise in the pair, and if Hilderbrand can mentor White and/or Roddick into a formidable doubles player(s), then that will be a boon to the team’s development.
As for senior Alan Rubio, he’s gone winless (0-6) in doubles matches this season. He was paired up with fellow senior Kento Yamada against Louisville’s Josh Howard-Tripp and Tin Chen, and lost, 6-0. He was then paired up with redshirt freshman Quinn Snyder to face Stanford’s Sangeet Sridhar and Timothy Sah, and they lost, 6-1.
Last weekend, he paired up with Roddick, but they ended up going 0-2 against Wake Forest and NC State’s Court 3 pairs.
Rubio’s court designation he’s played in every match so far this season, the Court 3 match, was an issue for the Knights last season too. While Courts 1 and 2 went 18-6 and 15-5 respectively, Court 3 went 9-11.
The team only needs to win two doubles matches to get the doubles point. So, losing Court 3 is not an issue if the pairings on Courts 1 and 2 win. However, that has not been the case this season.
The team has three players it can make permutations with to make solid Court 1 doubles pairs. However, Court 2 matches could be a coin toss since the team needs to develop a new pairing for it. So, unless Court 3 improves quickly, the chances of the Knights getting the doubles point also become much more of a coin toss than it may have been last season.
The team’s struggles continue into singles action.
The team went 3-3 in singles play against Louisville, 0-4 against Stanford, 0-6 against Wake Forest, and 0-3 against NC State. Overall, the team sits at 4-26 in singles play.
The team’s only ranked singles player is Hilderbrand, coming in at No. 16. However, by this virtue, Hilderbrand has to face what is most likely the highest-ranked singles player of their opposing team on Court 1.
He spent most of his matches last season (13 of them) on Court 5, though he had six matches on Court 3. However, he never played on Court 1 and lost his only match on Court 2 last season.
To start this season, he’s gone against the likes No. 62-ranked Trent Bryde of Georgia, Stanford’s No. 7-ranked Fery, and Florida’s defending NCAA singles champion Sam Riffice. He lost to all three of them.
With that said, however, singles play is not something that one player can carry the team through. It’s an adage used in many a sport, but it’s especially true here with this format: You’re only as good as your weakest player.
Last season, the team only sent out seven players to play in six singles matches for all 26 dual matches. With the departure of three of those players (Decamps, Mazzuchi, and Mikhail Sokolovskiy), only Hilderbrand, Rubio, and Yamada enter this season with more than five matches of dual match experience in singles play.
It’s still early in the season, but a combination of players adjusting to new positions and others needing to gain match experience to develop their play overall means that the team has a higher likelihood to lose to ranked teams, of which they are 0-5 against this season so far.
With that said, however, head coach John Roddick’s schedule does provide the team more chances against ranked opponents, which means the team will, at least, have consistent chances to hone their craft playing against some of the highest-ranked teams in the country.
Next weekend, the team, now ranked No. 25, hits the road to take on Florida State on Friday at 5 p.m. before traveling to Texas to take on the No. 9-ranked Longhorns on Sunday at 1 p.m.