It’s been a hectic few weeks here in Atlanta, as work wound down for the summer, and classes started up (in their various, altered forms) in earnest. That said, we’re back, and this week it’s time for a look at one of Tech’s oldest teams, its Men’s Tennis squad.
After poking around in the media guide and the library archives, also known as “older media guides,” detailed season-by-season results for the Racket Jackets go back decently far, to 1948. However, they actually trace their roots back to the bright and early year of 1908. Like so much about the “individual” sports — think track and swimming, as previously discussed, as well as golf — the competitive landscape is pockmarked and, well, lacking a better term, weird.
In this case, we can draw on a strong example in the form of the dichotomy between the lengthy existence of the NCAA individual and doubles national championships, and the relatively recent addition of the team bracket. While Georgia Tech has a strong legacy in the individual tennis tournaments, particularly the SEC and ACC singles brackets, before they departed the former and the latter was discontinued, its only officially recognized conference titles were scattered throughout the 1930s and 40s, though a few modern teams have come close in the ACC era.
The first record of coach for the tennis team came in 1915, seven years after the team was founded. The school’s first Athletic Director, J. B. Crenshaw, also notable for heading the Modern Languages department and being the mastermind behind Tech’s interwar experiment in Southeastern varsity lacrosse, was said coach. He would coach for over a decade before giving way to Charlie Griffin in 1930, compiling a record of 32-12-2.
I noted that there’s a record of conference championships in the 1930s and 40s, but they do have a couple from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Southern Conference days. The first of these came in 1918, while Tech was still in the SIAA, and they added the SoCon ones in 1922 and 1926.
Though Charlie Griffin would not match this success in his two seasons at the helm in the heart of the Great Depression years, his successor, George Griffin, was able to top it. And, yes, it’s the same George Griffin as cross country, track, Dean of Students, etc. etc. etc. because of course it is. The more legendary Griffin was able to put up a 20-1-0 record in his two seasons, before he gave way to Earle Bortell, who would go on to be Tech tennis’ longest-serving coach. Bortell coached the Jackets for 29 years — including weathering some of Tech’s toughest financial storms, threatening the long-term existence of the sport, which didn’t compete in at least one of the seasons in that nearly three decade-long tenure.
Though he is no longer Tech’s winningest coach — that honor would pass to Tech tennis great and current head coach Kenny Thorne when his 215 wins were eclipsed by Thorne’s 272 — he did helm the Jackets to its greatest success, even if the team didn’t have a team NCAA berth to show for it. See, the tournament had the unfortunate predicament of not existing yet. And therein lies the problem with treating the success of non-revenue teams in the same way we see revenue ones. Much as the college football landscape has massive carveouts for “oh that bowl is decent” and “oh, we won the Legends Division” and whatnot that the more standardized team sports of men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and softball, or volleyball, there’s something to be said about the underrated successes of the likes of tennis, swimming, golf, and track on the Flats. Though, since most people still speak the language of NCAA tournaments and conference championships, here’s some of the latter to lead off the list of Bortell-related accolades:
1938, 1946, and 1960 - Southeastern Conference team title
1948, 1949, 1956, and 1959 - Southeastern Conference runners-up
1938 (Russell Bobbitt), 1946 (T.W. Fowler), 1956 (Mike Mehaffy,) 1959 (Bob Nichols), 1960 (Ned Neely, Harry Thompson, Paul Petz) - Southeastern Conference singles title
1936 (A.F. Morrell/Burtz Boulware), 1938 (Russell Bobbit/Bill Moore), 1946 (Howard McCall/Niles Milsap), 1956 (Mike Mehaffy/Bud Parker), 1960 (Ned Neely/Harry Thompson, Dave Peake/Davis Pearsall), and 1964 (Walter Johnson/Paul Speicher) after Bortell left - Southeastern Conference doubles title
Note: no tournament was held from 1943-1945. Also, the Bill Moore listed above is that Bill Moore, he of the namesake Tennis Center and Student Success Center
Here, perhaps, is Bortell, a mild-mannered physics professor-turned-tennis coach’s most humorous legacy.
In 1960, Bort
ell’s final year, the Jackets matched their SEC team title with a run deep into the NCAA tournament, finishing at fourth place, which is still their best-ever finish. In those days, the team score was aggregated off of the singles and doubles finishes, like a swim or track meet, rather than being match play. It would prove to be the doubles pair that took an SEC title of their own, Ned Neely/Harry Thompson, that delivered Tech its high point total, thanks to them reaching the penultimate round of the national draw, in one of Tech’s best-ever singles or doubles draw finishes.
Later that decade, under new head coach Jack Rodgers, Tech braved the wilds of independence to a relative successful dozen-year tenure that lasted until Tech was on the doorstep of rejoining the world of conference affiliation. In that span, the Racket Jackets had several key milestones. In 1966, led by All-American Walter Johnson, secured a fifth place accolade in NCAA competition. Four years later, another All-American, Larry Turville, shepherded the Jackets to a 10th place finish. This would be the last time Tech had a monumental season before the team and individual draws were separated in 1976.
By then, however, Tech would be led by its own former great, the aforementioned Johnson. His nine seasons, though, were rockier than any of his predecessors, save for the dismal Charlie Griffin. Of course, it is a known trope that it is difficult for legendary players to become legendary coaches, but Johnson did see Buzzy Willet to a singles title in the Metro Conference in 1976. Interestingly, the Jackets didn’t play Metro opponents in the regular season in the three short years they were in the conference, but it does seem there was a post-season tournament.
Like many Tech sports, the transition to ACC play was a rude awakening for the Yellow Jackets, and Johnson oversaw the brunt of the burden, as his team failed to win a single ACC match their first two years in the conference. In his last season, though, Tech managed to knock off Maryland, 6-3, notching a conference win for the first time since they departed the SEC nearly two decades before.
Johnson’s replacement, Gery Groslimond, didn’t have a particularly sterling five seasons on the Flats, either. However, the dismal 3-16, winless-in-the-ACC season he put up in the spring of 1983 contrasts sharply with his three winning records in conference play and the 14-8 season that saw Tech ranked no. 25 in the final season poll, its first-ever ranking. What he lacked in overall winning percentage, though, he made up for in his star talent. The first Yellow Jacket to win ACC hardware was a freshman by the name of Bryan Shelton, who won ACC Player of the Year and the conference singles title in 1985. You might be familiar with Shelton, who is now the well-regarded coach of the Florida men’s tennis team, though his more relevant coaching stop for Tech fans is the years he spent coaching the women’s tennis team, including leading the ladies to Tech’s only NCAA-recognized team title, when they took the 2007 edition of women’s NCAAs.
Shelton would go on to be named to the all-conference team in all four of his years on the Flats, as did his teammate Thorne. The pair would also become All-Americans in 1988, the first time Tech had two named in the same year. When Shelton played in the NCAA singles draw in 1985, he was the first Racket Jacket to make an appearance since the spring of 1971.
It would be the year following Groslimond’s departure, though, that things finally clicked for Tech. Jean Desdunes didn’t miss a beat in the first year he coached the Jackets, as his team, led by their two All-Americans, took the ACC regular season title and finished as the runners-up in the conference tournament. The team ranked no. 12 in the country in the final poll, and also opened the Bill Moore Tennis Center, which had three indoor courts along the George Griffin track, along with several outdoor courts along Tenth Street. That season also saw Tech’s first win against the Athenians in over two decades, and Shelton made the deepest advance in the singles bracket in a similar time frame, dropping in the quarterfinals. When Thorne graduated, he was Tech’s career and season leader in singles wins and was named the Region Player of the Year. To top it all off, the Jackets earned their first-ever spot in the NCAA team tournament, a feat that they would go on to replicate under Desdunes in 1994, 1997, and 1998, as well. 1994’s Regional Championship and appearance in the Round of Sixteen would prove to be their best finish until 2011, when they tied that accomplishment. In Desdunes’ tenure, Jens Skjoedt also won ACC Player of the Year, with his win coming in 1990, and the Jackets notched another ACC runner-up finish in 1994, finishing no. 28 in the polls.
After Desdunes resigned in 1998, the Jackets have since been coached by a man whose name already litters this history of the men’s tennis team, Kenny Thorne, Desdunes’ assistant at the time. Tech’s second-longest serving head coach, and aforementioned winningest coach, Thorne is yet without a conference title to his name. However, his teams have come close on a few occaisions, and have had some very solid year-in and year-out performances to show for it, on top of the individual accolades.
Though the ACC singles and doubles draws were eliminated a few short years into his tenure, Thorne has coached three ACC Players of the Year, Benjamin Cassaigne in 1999, Guillermo Gomez in 2011, and, most recently, Christopher Eubanks in 2016 and 2017. Under his leadership, nine men have received All-American awards, these being Roger Anderson and Scott Schnugg in 2003, David North and Marko Rajevac in 2005, Gomez in 2009, 2010, and 2011, Kevin King in 2011 and 2012, Juan Spir in 2011, 2012, and 2013, Vikram Hundal in 2013, and Eubanks in 2016 and 2017.
In Thorne’s first season at the helm, the Jackets once more were barely beaten out for a conference title. They managed their third-straight NCAA appearance, though, and finished no. 32 in the polls. Though 2000 would see them finish unranked, they have finished the season outside the rankings (which go through about no. 75, so a lot of teams, but still) just once since. The Jackets qualified for postseason play from 2001-2007, 2010 and 2011, and 2015-2017, consistently figuring in the NCAA field, or being on or near the bubble. Though 2011 was their best finish in the bunch as a team, Kevin King and Juan Spir made the semifinals of the doubles draw in 2011 — they would also make a run the following year — and Eubanks advanced to the Elite Eight of the singles draw in 2017, to boot. Thorne, for his efforts, earned ACC Coach of the Year in both 1999 and 2017, as well as the ITA National Coach of the Year in 2011.
Odds and Ends:
Highest ITA Rankings: Guillermo Gomez ranked no. 3 nationally in singles (2010), Juan Spir/Vikram Hundal ranked no. 3 nationally in doubles (2012)
ITA Regional Titles: Kevin King/Juan Spir (2011, beat fellow Yellow Jackets Eliot Potvin/Ryan Smith), Kevin King (2011), Juan Spir/Vikram Hundal (2012),
Since the 2011 peak, when the Jackets rode a deep roster to the Round of Sixteen and a no. 13 ranking in the final poll, there have been several other notable accomplishments for the team. Perhaps the most significant is also the least, uh, results-based. In the winter of 2013, the Yellow Jackets opened a brand-new tennis facility on the same site as the old Bill Moore Tennis Center. The new indoor facility, which features six courts, rather than three, locker rooms, team facilities, lounges, and several hundred spectators-worth of seating, still bears the original name. Meanwhile, outside, Tech has ten courts, spectator seating, and a jumbotron. Though the site probably could have been worked better to fit in 12 courts and thus the ability to host bigger tournaments, such as the NCAAs, the new facility is still a big step up over their former courts. Now eight years old, it still looks like a new facility. In conjunction with the tennis upgrades, the majority of the track stadium gave way, and was replaced by a smaller set of bleachers attached to the back of the Ken Byers stands. Earlier this spring, the final portion of that stadium came down, leaving just the combined tennis and track structure.
This new facility was the site of the Jackets’ best win in their modern era, when they took down the no. 8 Duke Blue Devils at home in 2015. This would be the anchor win in a NCAA bid, the first of three years in a row in the tournament.
Since the departure of generational talent Chris Eubanks, the Jackets have been in the wilderness a bit. However, they were playing well this spring before play was halted due to coronavirus. Their no. 6-ranked recruiting class, combined with a previous large tranche of freshmen the year before, is yet to fully bear fruit, but they are a young team with a lot of time left to put together something special. Just this year, Keshav Chopra and Marcus McDaniel have already won a doubles title, coming at the USTA National Junior Indoor Championships. They have a lot of runway left here on the Flats.
That is what we like to call “history yet unwritten.”
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule.