Aiming for a fine line

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In high-level tennis, hit a forehand straight at your opponent, and the next thing you know, he swats it back down the line for a winner. Drive a backhand too close to the line, it misses wide, and you lose the point.

Only your most precise shots will turn into winners.

Such is the challenge for the 2004 AU Men's Tennis team. After winning two Patriot League team titles in the last two springs, the Eagles want more than an NCAA Tournament berth.

They aim to advance if and when they get there. But with PL contenders Army, Navy and Colgate all improved since last year, AU must not take the league lightly. It's a fine line to walk, or in this case, to swing for.

"On one hand, we don't want to get overconfident and look past Patriot League opponents," said Martin Blackman, AU head coach. "We don't want to take them for granted.

"On the flip side," he added, "it's important to set higher goals. Our goal should be to win the first round in the NCAAs," something the Eagles haven't done in their history.

Unlike many sports that are defined as only fall, winter or spring, collegiate tennis spans most of the year. Having played five individual tournaments last fall and five out-of-conference team meets indoors since the break, AU's need for the spring PL season, since the break, AU's need for the spring PL season, the most important portion of the year, has become evident.

The biggest key, Blackman said, is getting better play out of the top three seeds.

AU has an abundance of experience, with six seniors on the roster - four of them in the six singles spots. Its three doubles teams, which play for a combined one point per meet, are solid. And AU's depth in singles seeds 4-6 is unmatched in the PL.

When things go well, that usually secures four points and the meet win. But against tough competition, the Eagles will need points from seniors Guillaume Tarralle and Tushar Garg, and sophomore Juancarlo Vazquez, who rotate around in seeds 1-3. Historically for the Eagles, those points have been harder to seize.

"We've got three guys (Garg, Tarralle and Vazquez) who have the tools to play at a higher level than they're playing at right now," Blackman said. "There are lots of reasons why they're not playing at that level now. [But] the only way to play at a higher level is to play tougher opposition."

That's exactly what the Eagles are doing. They started their spring season by getting walloped 7-0 by Big East giant Virginia Tech on Jan. 23, and then split two 4-3 meets, a win at George Washington University on Jan. 31 and a loss to Hampton on Feb. 7. The Eagles now find themselves on a two-meet win streak, having beaten UNC-Greensboro 6-1 on Feb. 8 and Pennsylvania 4-3 last weekend.

While wins are nice, Blackman said the more important thing is for his top threesome to buy into the early season as a learning experience. Garg, scrappy and at 5 foot10 inches built for ground stroke play, is getting the message.

"If you put too much pressure and emphasis on winning," Garg said, "you're not going to compete to your full potential.

"I just came off a weekend where I had two matches I could have won if I'd taken the right chances," he added. "I learned from that."

Tarralle, who is taller, more fluid and much more relaxed on the court than Garg agreed. "It's all about taking the little steps that get us there. We can't cut corners."

Tarralle, who co-captains the senior-laden squad along with fellow senior Juan Jaysingh, should have little trouble emphasizing his point to his fellow veterans. But unlike some more popular collegiate sports, which at AU are soccer and basketball, the most important tennis meets come late in the spring, when seniors have more important things to worry about.

Thus Blackman only cautiously embraces his squad's experience, and rightly so. Barring disaster, AU will play in the four -team PL tournament on April 24-25. And should the team win for the third straight season, graduation will face the seniors - Garg, Tarralle, Jaysingh, Andreas Kulscar, Jonah Fliegelman, and Ruben Rivero - on May 9, two days before NCAA regionals start.

"The conference tournament is two weeks before the end of their college career," Blackman said. "The tendency is to think about graduation and life after graduation. The challenge will be to stay focused."

For the moment, Garg is unfazed.

"It's just something we've addressed as a team," he said. "We know it's our last chance. As far as senioritis goes, it's not going to happen. I'll tell you that right now."

With Pacific, Richmond, and city rivals Howard and Georgetown on the horizon, the bigger deal right now is getting into conference play healthy, both physically and mentally. If the Eagles can survive through March and pick up their game along the way, they like their chances.

"The risk is that you get so beat up that you lose confidence," Blackman said. "But I think they've got the character to take losses and keep learning from them, and to get some big wins against big opponents."

This may be AU's last chance to get those wins for a while. While Vazquez was last season's PL Rookie of the Year, the mass exodus that will occur at the end of the season means the Eagles won't have enough returning players to play a team meet. Recruits will fill the physically, but mentalities like those of Garg, Tarralle and Jaysingh may be harder to replace.

That's a thought for another year, though, and almost an entirely different team. And while the battles on the court may be individual, this group stays focused as a group and for the group.

"As a team right now, whenever we've set higher goals, we've done better," Garg said. "This year, our goal is to get past the regionals, to Georgia, and to the sweet 16. To manage the long-term goal, we break it up into short-term goals."

"I really want this," Tarralle said. "I don't think about May [and graduation]. Tennis is my priority.

"But I also realize I can't do it by myself," he added. "All these guys want to have a great season, and we want to take these guys along with us"

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