METZ, FRANCE - Since I call the shots here at Yellow Jacket Roundup, or whatever it’s imposter summer name is, that means I get to decide the order for what sport we discuss on any given week. Fortunately, this week takes us back into the more recent past with a glance at Men’s Tennis. They begin play this fall with a lot of question marks, some shoes to fill, and in need of a new definition after the unexpected early end of an era.
October 23rd, 2017, began as a relatively unassuming Monday morning on the Flats. Tech had knocked off their homecoming opponent, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, under the lights at Bobby Dodd Stadium a few days before. The non-revenue news from the weekend included a 2-0 homecoming weekend homestand for volleyball, the conclusion of a 7-1 fall slate against local cupcakes for softball, a 1-1 weekend for both swimming and diving teams, some women’s tennis action, and a middle of the road showing for golf. Nowhere was the biggest news of the day mentioned, which is sort of explained by the fact that Yellow Jacket Review gets written somewhere between dinner and second dinner at Cookout the night before. In fact, men’s tennis didn’t even come up at all.
That morning, news broke that Christopher Eubanks, a generational talent who is perhaps the greatest Yellow Jacket tennis player ever, would immediately turn professional. It had been a common refrain of yours truly in those early days of the Yellow Jacket Roundup to ask where was the elusive Eubanks? It was the case of the missing tennis player. Softball and golf results wouldn’t post online. A lot was disappearing back in those days, come to think of it, but the question remained, why wasn’t Eubanks playing with the team?
By forgoing his final season, Eubanks finishes his impressive three-year career as one of the best to ever don the White and Gold. With a career singles mark of 90-33 (37-17 in tournaments) and a 53-42 overall doubles record, the Atlanta native refused the drop a home contest in his final two years. Eubanks finishes as the first Yellow Jacket and just the fifth player in conference history to earn two ACC Player of the Year awards while also being the fifth student-athlete in program history to be named a two-time all-American. A three-time all-ACC honoree, Eubanks was also the recipient of the USTA/ITA Sportsmanship Award in 2016 and received the 2017 ITA Arthur Ashe, Jr. Leadership and Sportsmanship Award.
In the program record books, Eubanks finishes tied-fifth in all-time career wins while finishing 10th in career win percentage (.732). He also finishes tied-second in season wins (34 – 2015-16) and tied-fourth in season wins in dual matches (21 – 2015-16). His 21 doubles dual match victories in 2015-16 also rank him third all-time at Georgia Tech.
It was a crippling blow to the men’s tennis program. Christopher Eubanks, a true Tech man in every sense of the word, would be sorely missed. Eubanks, we hardly knew ye, but he is on to bigger and better things than he was at Fowler and Tenth. Since going professional, Tech’s scion has become a top-200 player globally and is starting to play his way into the main draws in important tournaments and Grand Slams. To have had his presence grace the Flats for three years in itself was a blessing. The Jackets finished out the fall preseason with one last tournament, but the mid-year lineup jockeying to compensate for the unexpected loss of their best player would prove difficult, to say the least.
Though the season started with a one-two doubleheader sweep of The Citadel at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex, the Jackets would win just one more before the end of February when they knocked off Auburn 6-1 at home. Though they began March with a two match win streak against Miami and Georgia State, again Tech went on a dismal streak, failing to win another match until they faced lowly Boston College in the final action of the regular season. Of course, they took some hard bounces along the way, but multiple weeks-long losing streaks were brutal for a team still attempting to define itself in the post-Eubanks era. The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament was kinder to them, pitting them against Boston College for the second time in a week, whom they again swept, before upsetting VPISU 4-3, a reverse of the close match they had just a few weeks before. Ultimately, the Jackets fell 4-1 to Notre Dame, but their showing in the conference tournament ended the season on a more positive note.
Looking back, it is vital to keep two things clear. First things first, the Jackets losing a player midway through the season is tough enough even when he isn’t one of the best to ever play the game at Tech. Eubanks’ departure shuffled the deck for these guys. Carlos Divar stepped into gigantic shoes as a sophomore, playing in the number one spot vacated by Eubanks, up from the his usual position on court three or four. The phenomenon reverberated up and down the lineup. That said, it’s also important to keep in mind that these guys lost some matches it seemed they’d have won in the fall. Early season shock? New, substantial challenge? A sophomore unexpectedly thrust to the forefront? Regression is a big, frightening word, but these young men were the perfect test case for it to happen. And, to an extent, it did.
That’s not to say it was all doom and gloom for the Jackets. They did a fair job of making the best of a tough situation. It would be shameful to just gloss over the fact that Tech still got a doubles and a singles entry into the NCAA individual championship draws. Divar and Michael Kay earned those spots. Did they underwhelm against a team they beat previously in doubles? Sure. But that’s also a part of sports. They were both well-regarded all year and played their way into the postseason. That’s not nothing.
But the fact of the matter remains that the season, which ended 8-17, with a 4-10 mark in conference play, was a shell of what it could have been. If everything had gone well, even losing Eubanks, the Jackets were a few bounces different from going 7-7 in the conference. Some of that is coaching, and some of that is just the nature of sport. “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, then we’d all have a Merry Christmas,” is a phrase attributed to Don Meredith, one of the original members of the Monday Night Football broadcasting crew on ABC. What Meredith is getting at is that there are infinite excuses to make when things don’t work out how you want them to, in this case for Tech men’s tennis. In the end, whatever happens, happens. The Yellow Jackets could have had a better season.
With some recruiting, they will be able to not play short a man this year, which is always beneficial to depth. But will the replacement be a transcendent legend who will one day find himself on the Mount Rushmore of Georiga Tech stars? Sadly, probably not. Coach Kenny Thorne does a good job of finding instate talent here in Georgia. It is, after all, one of the top states for collegiate recruiting, tennis included. However, on the world stage, the United States isn’t the cream of the crop. Times sometimes require looking abroad for supplemental talent. Take what women’s tennis coach Rodney Harmon is doing down the hall: from his recent graduate, All-American Paige Hourigan, who hails from New Zealand, to his no. 6-ranked class consisting of a trio of acclaimed junior players from Russia, Australia, and Egypt, he consistently complements Americans with elite players from overseas. His team was just narrowly edged in the national semifinals. I think something is working for Harmon.
This is not to solely criticize Thorne and his staff, the team who developed the well-regarded American Eubanks into the talent he is today, along with Kay, who hails from Alpharetta. His teams are consistently great performers in the classroom, too. Tech builds everyday champions. Thorne’s teams usually do a solid job of that. And it’s not as if the staff has ignored looking abroad, bringing in Divar, a Spaniard, Philip Gresk from Poland, as well as Andrew Li from Hong Kong. But where are the big, splashy rankings of Harmon’s teams? Consistent recruiting from all corners of the map will bring great men to the Flats. He’s found elite kids before. Now begins, in earnest, the quest for his next Eubanks, the man who will define Tech tennis for years to come. It’s a tall order. This is a team with a great chance to go upwards from here, despite losing the experienced Kay and Elijah Melendez as well. We aren’t exactly scraping the bottom of the barrel, but Tech needs to reload, not rebuild. It needs a full cycle to replace one of the best ever, even if it’s someone who’ll sit at the end of the bench. It needs to win winnable matches. It needs to go back to what made it one of our historically more consistent non-revenue programs. And that starts with solid recruiting this summer.
Coming up next week: a non-revenue surprise.
Stay tuned for more investigation into the state of non-revenue sports, mild soapbox editorializing, and, hopefully, some productive discourse to get us through the summer. As always, fell free to leave any questions, comments, and feedback below.