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Diverse freshman class brings promising Irish future

Joe Meixell | Thursday, February 12, 2004

They compose a diverse group – hailing from New York to Miami to South Bend, with an Irish junior champion and the “Georgian Juggernaut” rounding out the quintet.

Some made an immediate impact in the Irish lineup, while others complete one of the deepest teams Bobby Bayliss has coached.

They are the freshmen on the Irish men’s tennis team, who, despite their differences, have brought together experience, grit and raw talent to put points on the board for the team this year. They are Irackli Akhvlediani of Vienna, Austria; Stephen Bass of Bronxville, N.Y.; Ryan Keckley of South Bend, Ind.; Barry King of Dublin, Ireland and Bobby McNally of Miami, Fla.

They are the future of men’s tennis at Notre Dame.

“These guys are going to do some great things,” Bayliss said. “And they’re all different – really, really different.

“Irackli is in his own little world sometimes, and Barry is the big, lumbering Irish guy, everybody’s buddy,” Bayliss said. “Stephen is the New York kid who talks too fast – nobody can understand him – and Ryan’s the real dark horse. No one has begun to realize how good he’s going to be. Bobby is also a really strong player.”

The class is transitioning well, with Bass and King playing No. 3 doubles and No. 4 and 5 singles, respectively. Keckley has seen time at No. 6 singles and is teamed with senior tri-captain Luis Haddock on the No. 1 doubles team which is ranked 18th nationally.

“The biggest transition is that [college tennis] is an individual sport with a team aspect to it. You have to care more about the team than yourself,” Bass said. “I think it’s such a good sport in college because people learn to act individually as well as on a team.”

The team has gelled as a team over the early spring while playing indoors, a huge change for many of the freshmen.

“I’ve never played indoors in my entire life,” Florida native McNally said. “It’s the craziest thing ever – it took me three weeks just to get used to the sound of balls and lack of heat. It’s a different world, indoor tennis.”

Don’t tell Akhvlediani and King about different worlds. Both players have had to make the bigger, international transition.

“It’s a big difference, and it’s an experience for me,” Akhvlediani said. “I played in a lot of single tournaments [in Austria]. I didn’t have a lot of experience playing with a team. It’s something I want to explore further and something that can help me in my game and overall tennis performance.”

For Akhvlediani, the challenge of change was magnified by the move from Austria to the United States.

“The system here is really different,” he said.

King hails from Ireland and believes the system’s differences are positive ones, a foreign system that not only encourages team play but a team mindset.

“The competition level has gone up a huge amount,” said King of his move to the United States. “Having coaches on the court and being on a team is different. Playing for the team, I’m trying to win for them more than myself. The camaraderie for the team is really strong, and something I didn’t have before. I want to go out there and give 100 percent for team and for coaches.”

“It’s unusual for me,” Bayliss said of his two foreign players arriving this year. “[Though] most [college tennis] teams have a preponderance of foreign talent.”

Both Akhvlediani and King, however, set goals of playing college tennis in the United States, and Notre Dame was a top choice.

Now, both foreign players and the other three freshmen are a tight-knit family.

“The five freshmen, I think we’re so close it’s probably strange to see,” McNally said. “We hang out on weekends and eat dinner all together. It’s great having four guys just like you, who go through the same things just like you … Everyone likes each other a whole lot. With so many freshmen playing right off the spot, we get a little more respect from the upperclassmen. It makes things a whole lot easier.”

Bass was recruited by other top schools and programs and has actual family on the team, as well; his junior brother, Jimmy, also plays varsity tennis.

Since the beginning of the year, Bayliss has compared this class to the freshmen of 1989, who developed into a finely-tuned, title-contending powerhouse.

“We had a very large and talented class,” Bayliss said. “All players were among the top 100 prospects in country, which gave us a chance to really make an impact next year.” The Irish, who had not been ranked since the polls began in the early 1970s, were the new kid on the tennis block.

Although the Irish didn’t make the NCAA tournament that year, they committed themselves to being the best, Bayliss said. The next year, they appeared in the final 16 and reached the NCAA final in 1992. As seniors, despite the loss of their No. 1 singles player, the team finished in the top 10 and was among the final eight in the NCAA tournament.

Bayliss believes the current freshmen have the ability to be such a class. He also thinks they have the ability to play professional tennis after graduation.

“[Bass] is one tough out, an absolute nightmare to play against because he gets everything back, and he would cut off his arm to win a point,” Bayliss said.

King brings similar intensity to the court.

“He’s a big shaggy dog; everybody likes him,” Bayliss said of King. “He has no trouble making friends. He’s a lot of fun, and he has an enormous upside and a huge serve.”

Keckley, who could not be reached for comment, is home-grown for the Irish and has succeeded so far despite injury and the considerable handicap of playing tennis against a lack of strong opponents.

“He has tons of upside,” Bayliss said, “and [he] can become a really tremendously gifted college player.”

“[McNally has] a big forehand, good left-handed serve and great doubles instincts,” Bayliss said. Also left-handed, Akhvlediani struggled with the changes at the beginning of the year, but Bayliss pointed out that he is “doing really well this semester, which reflects in his tennis.”

There are big shoes for these freshmen to fill. From their record so far, however, one thing is certain – they will step up to the task this season and in seasons to come.