By Noah Allison–
Head tennis coach Rex Ecarma describes the beginning of the ACC era as “perfect timing.”
The timing couldn’t be better because U of L enters arguably the toughest tennis conference in the country with one of its best teams in Ecarma’s 25 years as head coach.
Led by six veteran seniors, the Cardinals boast three players ranked in the top 11 of the Ohio Valley Region and two doubles teams ranked in the top ten of the region.
But leading the pack and stirring the buzz about Louisville tennis are two regionally and nationally ranked singles players. 59th ranked Albert Wagner and, of course, national champion and number one overall rated tennis player in the country, Sebastian Stiefelmeyer.
“I just think our team is going to be predicated on how Sebastian and Albert do. To us, they are Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier. We can’t win without them,” Ecarma said. “I’ve built a good supporting cast around them, but still they are the engine in our car. I’m just so pleased with how those two guys have developed on the court and as people. Seeing both of these guys nationally ranked in singles is a very fitting way for them to enter their last semester at U of L.”
The dynamic duo has a large contribution to Louisville’s regional rankings, but U of L also has junior Alex Gornet ranked 11th regionally. The doubles team of Stiefelmeyer and Michael Lippens is ranked eighth regionally while the doubles team of Wagner and Chris Simmich is ranked tenth.
“It’s nice. To have that many people ranked regionally is tough. We are in a tough region. You have SEC teams in our region, and Memphis is really good. You just have a lot of really good players in our region,” Ecarma said. “For us to have five, we haven’t had that in four years, and those guys made it to the top ten and three Sweet Sixteens. So hopefully this is this group’s coming out party.”
The top end talent creates high hopes for the top 40-ranked Louisville squad.
“I’m more than excited to be honest, not because I’m arrogant but because I like to keep it real. If we are not ranked top 20 at the end of the season with all the opportunities that we have, I think it is a disappointment,” Stiefelmeyer said.
It isn’t just the ranked members of the team that gives Louisville high expectations. This team is as deep as they come. Six seniors and two juniors predicate an experienced and upperclassmen-heavy roster.
“You know how rare it is to have a big class? Like I told them, it’s very special. To have all six start out together and all leave together. That is so rare in any sport at any university,” Ecarma said.
“Chris Simmich is like the guy that makes everything go. When we didn’t have him in the first day of the Rainbow Classic, it really discombobulated us. Chris Simmich is not the star of the team, but he is so, so very important to this team. He’s something else. And obviously Van Damrongsi has been a starter, Luis Elizondo has been a starter, and a guy that’s coming up, Jeff Brown, who’s a junior, those guys all play important roles.”
Beyond the upperclassmen, Louisville also has four talented freshmen on the roster, adding to the depth.
“We probably have more team matches than any team in the country because I have so many double headers. A lot of college coaches are scared to do that because it will wear out their guys, but I’ve got 12 good players. I can just send them all out there. But these guys have got to do it. We can’t just do it with two or three guys.”
And living up to the competition of the ACC is going to take all 12 players at their best to make a mark in Louisville’s new conference.
“The tennis rankings go to 75, and some conferences don’t have any; probably 16 conferences don’t have one team in the top 75. The ACC has 12. It is like the buzz saw of conferences. So going into that buzz saw with veterans makes me feel more comfortable. I’m glad when I look in the back of the team van and see those six seniors and two juniors. I definitely feel more comfortable having them,” Ecarma said.
For tennis, competing on your own takes on a whole new dynamic when having to play doubles. Not getting as many touches and not having full control of the court can be difficult for a player who excels in the singles aspect. But Louisville’s nationally ranked singles players have a huge part in Louisville’s doubles success this year.
“I think you’ve got to love to play both. I always saw myself as a singles player. I knew I could be good in doubles but never felt as comfortable as in singles. I’ve got a good doubles partner in Chris Simmich. I enjoy playing with him. We have a good chemistry on the court,” Wagner said.
“Obviously, you can’t win a doubles on your own. It’s not good when you are playing really well but your partner is not focused or feeling good. You have to find a balance between both players, and both have to play on a solid level. It doesn’t have to be that great; it just has to be a good balance and you can do great things together.”
No. 1 Sebastian Stiefelmeyer
In lieu of the overall team success, there is no doubt that the leader of the team is Sebastian Stiefelmeyer.
As the nation’s number one ranked player, his momentum is Louisville’s momentum. Stiefelmeyer is not merely one of the most impressive tennis players to come through Louisville, but he is one of the most impressive athletes to come through Louisville. He not only excels on the court but off the court as well. He understands his role and importance to the team and has skyrocketed into the special kind of leader that doesn’t come around very often.
“Sebastian was a guy that had a lot of potential and was kind of our star freshman kind of thing. But he’s developed into the role model for the team, the captain of the team, the heart of the team, and he is such an impressive person,” Ecarma raved of his star player. “One thing about Sebastian is he keeps saying, ‘I am humbled and grateful to be number one, but this semester is about the team, and it’s not about me.’ This guy is the consummate team guy.”
And for all the praise, accolades and attention that Stiefelmeyer is receiving, he would be the first person to tell you that this wasn’t the way he planned it.
“I would be lying if I said I expected all this,” Stiefelmeyer said with a grin.
He entered the season ranked outside the top 100. Stiefelmeyer earned the top ranking after winning the 365-man Intercollegiate Tennis Association national tournament in the fall, beating out all of the nation’s top players.
Part of his success came from a lack of pressure; the underdog didn’t have anyone gunning for him. Now all eyes are on him, and his continued success and the success of his team come from the fact that the nation has yet to see its top tennis player at his best.
“I feel like now a lot of people know my name. They know from the scouting report how to play me. But I also, to be honest, don’t feel like I’ve done anything at the All-American or previous tournaments that I cannot back up,” Stiefelmeyer said. “I didn’t feel like I played the tennis of my life. In fact, I feel like I play even better now.
“If I play other players that are, say, ranked 25, I am not nervous because I feel like there is a reason why I am ranked ahead of them, and I expect them to play good tennis. If we get the best out of each other, my opponent and I, then I feel in most situations I am going to beat him. I really feel like they need a good day to beat me.
“And I didn’t really have that mindset before the All-American, but now I’ve beaten some of the best players in America. And I played good tennis but not awesome tennis. And that gives me the confidence heading into the season that I am not going to fail under the pressure of being number one.”
Photo by Austin Lassell / The Louisville Cardinal.