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Bulldogs looking to crack the top 25 barrier

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Last May, the Drake men’s tennis team had its season cut short by the No. 19 Auburn Tigers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs had chances to win the opening round match at Auburn, and the 2-4 loss in Champaign, Ill., has hung over the head of the returning players throughout the summer.

Although team play doesn’t begin until the spring season, the Bulldogs are motivated and ready to get the fall season underway and see themselves as a team that has hopes of entering the top 25 teams in the nation this season.

Drake will take part in four fall tournaments this season: the Drake Fall Invitational, the All-American Championships, the ITA Central Regionals and the Minnesota Gopher Invitational.

The Drake Fall Invitational will take place at the Roger Knapp Tennis Center. This tournament will be pivotal for the Bulldogs, as it will be their first tournament under a new head coach, who has yet to be named. Over the summer, Drake’s head coach of the last two seasons, Evan Austin, accepted the head coaching position at Fresno State in California. As of now, the list of teams that will be competing at the Drake Invite has not been finalized.

“For the Drake Invite it will be a good tournament to start off with, a good way to get matches in before the big tournaments like All-Americans and ITA Regionals,” said senior Anis Ghorbel.

Ghorbel was the star of the fall last year for the Bulldogs. The team captain won both the singles and doubles titles at the Drake Invite.

The Bulldogs will then head to the All-American Championships in Tulsa, Okla., during the last weekend of September. The All-American Championships features all of the best players in the nation. Therefore, there are both pre-qualifying and qualifying rounds to go through before finally reaching the main draw. Last year Ghorbel and fellow senior captain James McKie lost in the first round of the qualifying draw.

“Last year was my first time playing the All-Americans tournament, so I didn’t know how ready I should be to play at that level,” Ghorbel said. “This year I’ve worked hard enough and am fit enough to be able to do some damage there.”

The third tournament of the fall will be the ITA Central Regional at the Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota. This tournament, beginning Oct. 18, will feature the top players in the region, including competitors from power-conference teams like Oklahoma, Minnesota and Nebraska. Last year Ghorbel reached the finals of the Central Regional, matching the furthest any Bulldog had ever gotten at that tournament.

“Last year at Regionals I played really well,” Ghorbel said. “This year I’ll have to be really focused and keep the concentration going because it’s a tournament where you have to enter each match as positive as you can due to all the pressure.”

The fourth and final tournament of the fall will be the Minnesota Gopher Invitational, once again at the University of Minnesota. This is the first time the Bulldogs have played in this tournament despite having regularly competed against the Gophers in the spring season. The tournament’s lineup is a step up from the 2011 Purdue Invitational, which was the Bulldogs’ fourth tournament of the last fall season. The Gopher Invite will feature Nebraska, Denver, Dartmouth and DePaul. DePaul is the only team that did not finish last season with a national ranking.

“The fall schedule is definitely a lot stronger than last year,” McKie said. “This clearly shows how much this program is set on improving.”

Despite only having handful of practices under their belt, the Bulldogs have minimal amounts of rust to knock off before the fall slate kicks-off in a couple weeks. Each player on the team didn’t take the summer off to relax, with a number of the returning players competing in tournaments at home and abroad. Seniors Ghorbel and Jean Erasmus both represented their home countries, Tunisia and Namibia, in the international Davis Cup competition. Ghorbel, who competed primarily in doubles for Tunisia, helped lead his team to an undefeated record in round robin play, moving Tunisia into a higher level “group” of countries. Ghorbel thinks his extensive training for Davis Cup will help him perform better this fall.

“I’ve been playing all summer, a lot from the end of May to end of June when I was practicing almost five hours a day for Davis Cup,” Ghorbel said.  “I’ve done so much fitness and conditioning, and I think I’m moving better and faster on the court.”

Ghorbel and Erasmus weren’t the only two players staying active. Sophomore Grant Tesmer, who will be vying for playing time at the sixth singles slot this season, won two ITA Summer Circuit events, one at Wichita State and one at the University of Kansas. Tesmer took out opponents from Nebraska, Marquette, Oklahoma and University of Missouri – Kansas City. The rest of the Bulldog squad, whether practicing with other high-level players or competing in tournaments, is coming in ready for the fall season.

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