Last spring, the Drake men’s tennis team dominated the Missouri Valley Conference en route to a berth in the NCAA tournament. Despite falling to No. 17 Illinois, the Bulldogs ended their season ranked No. 62 in the nation.
With Mauricio Ballivian as the only senior on last season’s team, head coach Evan Austin had high goals for his squad for this fall’s difficult schedule, which threw Drake right into the middle of strong competition.
“Most of the events we played were extremely high level events,” Austin said. “I’m hoping that experience is going to help us heading into the spring season.”
The Bulldogs started their fall season at the Purdue Invitational in West Lafayette, Ind. Although no Drake player took home a singles crown, the doubles pairing of junior co-captains James McKie and Jean Erasmus won four consecutive matches to take the top flight doubles championship.
The next tournament saw the remaining Bulldogs take the court at the Drake Invitational at the Roger Knapp Tennis Center. Junior Anis Ghorbel started to draw attention, as the co-captain steamrolled through the top singles draw without dropping a set to take the ‘A’ flight singles championship. He also paired up with freshman Alen Salibasic to take the ‘A’ flight doubles championship. This was just the beginning of Salibasic’s fall success.
The schedule began to really heat up with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association All-American Pre-Qualifying tournament.
With only Ghorbel earning a bid into the qualifying tournament, McKie, Erasmus and Salibasic had to compete in the pre-qualifying draw to move on. With some of the top teams from throughout the nation in attendance, multiple Bulldogs stepped up and posted impressive wins.
McKie beat Jarryd Chaplin of the Tennessee Volunteers while Salibasic took out Dominique Maden of Clemson and Jackson Withrow of Texas A&M. Each opponent boasted strong junior tennis and college results, but the most impressive win for the Bosnian native was his victory over Withrow, who was the ninth-best junior recruit in the U.S., according to the Tennis Recruiting Network.
Austin’s squad ended the fall season at the ITA Central Regional tournament, where the Bulldogs competed against the region’s best players for a spot in the ITA National Indoors Tournament.
“I think it is hard to pick one specific result other than (Anis) Ghorbel’s finals run at the ITA Central Regional as the highlight of the fall,” Austin said.
Ghorbel stormed through the singles draw as he took out No. 51 Clifford Marsland of Tulsa and No. 31 Christopher Aumueller of Nebraska to reach the final. Ghorbel is one of only three Bulldogs to reach the final of the ITA Central Regional tournament. Dalibor Pavic reached the finals in 2007 and Robert Novotny captured the 1994 title.
Austin said he believes that Ghorbel’s improvement in conditioning is one of the main reasons he captured such stunning results this fall.
“I think the biggest thing for Anis (Ghorbel) is his conditioning,” he said. “He’s an extremely good competitor and strikes the ball about as well as anyone in college tennis, so it’s just continuing to improve his fitness level and movement that is going to be the difference for him.”
Ghorbel wasn’t the only Drake player to end on a strong note at the ITA Central Regional, as Erasmus refocused himself after losing his first round match to take the consolation title.
The Bulldogs now have until January to train for the spring season, and Austin said he is optimistic about the team this year.
“I’m really excited about the depth of our team this year,” Austin said. “We have a number of guys who are playing at a level where they should be able to contribute for us at any given time, so it’s just going to be up to those guys to step up and perform when they get their shots.”
The spring season will kick off in Boston for the Bulldogs, as they travel to Harvard University to go up against the Crimson as well as DePaul and Denver.
“In January, we have a big weekend in Boston against three very tough teams, and if we can get off to a good start there, I think it will be the start of a great year,” McKie said.
The team’s goal is to break into the top 30 teams in the nation this year, so Drake will have to continue to become a tougher and more disciplined team if it wishes to compete with the larger power conference schools.
“With the schedule we are going to be playing, we need to be able to compete at our best every time out on the court and not just to have a great match here and there,” Austin said.
Entering the fall, the Bulldogs wanted to send a message to the rest of the NCAA that they are a team to be reckoned with, and that goal will continue to the spring.
“I know that many teams who hear our goal of being top 30 will write us off,” McKie said. “But we all really believe we can get there.”