Senior Danny Westerman has been the outright leader of UW's men's tennis team, but he thinks this year's edition has the sort of closeness that can help carry it to a successful season.
"It's the most close-knit team I think we've had since I've been here," Westerman said, expressing his excitement about entering the season.
Westerman and company embarked last weekend upon another run at the Big Ten championship, trying to improve upon last year's fifth-place finish.
Wisconsin struggled mightily to gain any momentum in its opening preseason matchups, posting just a 7-23 match record in singles.
The Badgers opened the year on the road at the Tom Fallon Invitational, hosted by Notre Dame. The invite paired Wisconsin against Harvard, Ball State, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa State, and the host Fighting Irish. The team struggled to compete, due in large part to a number of early-season woes, as well as the absence of Westerman, their No. 1 singles player.
Westerman instead returned to his home state of California to play in a tournament in Palm Springs. His finish was reasonable, and Westerman retired in the second round, under the sweltering 115-degree temperatures. The tournament marked the beginning of his attempts at returning to the ITA Region IV tournament, where last year he lost in the quarterfinals. The team's most valuable player for the last two seasons, Westerman has compiled the 10th-best winning percentage (.590) in school history. His 22-11 singles record and 16-10 doubles record helped lead the team (13-10) to a sixth-place finish in the Big Ten (5-5) last season. For the first time in his career, Westerman will enter singles play with the motivation of already being ranked nationally.
"Last year I had a pretty good year individually," Westerman said. "Hopefully it's my turn to step up."
The Badgers are led by coach Pat Klingelhoets, who is entering his 20th year as the ringleader of men's tennis. He believes his team has the potential to outperform last year's fifth-place finish in the Big Ten, and has high expectations for his No.1 player.
"I think there's talent out there," Klingelhoets said. "I think we've got guys that have the tools to win. We've got Danny at one, who is probably as good as anyone in the country."
Senior Scott Rutherford and redshirt freshman Alexander Kasarov led the team last weekend. Both players compiled two singles wins, as well as one doubles win each (Kasarov/Jason Gonzaga). The doubles team of Rutherford and senior Scott Green enter the preseason ranked 33rd in the nation, and play at the team's top doubles position.
Undoubtedly, the team will have to better its performance against tough competition before Big Ten play starts. The Badgers have three more warm-up tournaments before the season officially begins on Jan. 25 against Northern Illinois at the Nielsen tennis complex. This weekend's singles performances and 3-3 doubles effort was disappointing, showing just how much work needs to be done.
"The key for us is probably going to be our singles lineup," Klingelhoets said. "We are going to definitely have to make some progress from where we are now to be doing well in the Big Ten."
The experience this team brings is quite possibly its strongest link. The Badgers have five returning seniors, each hoping to win their first Big Ten title.
"Our goal is to finish in the top three or four in the Big Ten," Westerman said. "Of course, winning it would be nice. We've got five seniors. It's great leadership out here."
The team concept is another major aspect attributed to this group. It has senior talent in Blake Baratz, Justin Baker, Scott Green, Gonzaga, Westerman and Rutherford to carry the team through any rough spots, and the inspired play of underclassman Alexander Kasarov and David Hippee to pick up the slack. The players' willingness to help one another while still maintaining lofty personal expectations is what will bring this team gratification at the end of this season, win or lose.