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‘Who are you on a daily basis?’: Men’s tennis looks for bounce-back season

| Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Notre Dame men’s tennis head coach Ryan Sachire knows success in the NCAA tennis season is not just about what happens in March, April or May. “It starts back in the fall,” he said. “Our culture with these guys … those guys have all played a lot of tennis matches for Notre Dame. I liked where we ended our fall season with how we were practicing, the mentality we brought every single day.”

Last season, Notre Dame tennis experienced a season of highs and lows. The Irish had an okay 16-13 record but posted a 5-7 mark in ACC play. Painful losses to Florida State and Columbia in the first round of the ACC tournament and NCAA championships punctuated their unspectacular season.

The Irish lost all but one of their matches to teams that finished in the USTA Top 25. That included a 4-3 loss to NC State, two 4-1 losses to Wake Forest, 6-1 road losses to Michigan and Virginia, 4-0 sweeps at North Carolina and vs. Ohio State, a regular season 4-2 loss at home against FSU and a 5-2 defeat in Durham at the hands of Duke. The Irish would, however, pick up resounding conference victories as well. They crushed Boston College in Chestnut Hill 7-0, swept Virginia Tech 4-0 in Blacksburg, and posted home wins against Clemson and Georgia Tech. They would finish the season ranked No. 33 nationally, slightly outside of the Top 25.

Sachire is preaching consistency and building depth as the challenge of a new season looms. He believes the team’s success lies in its ability to maintain an identity.

“That’s what it starts with — who are you on a daily basis?” Sachire said. “Those guys have done a hell of a job being consistent with their work ethic, their attitude, their focus, taking care of their bodies so they’re available every single day. That’s what we’re going to need.” Sachire hopes establishing those good habits will allow the squad to “lean on the middle of our lineup throughout the course of the year, because those are our leaders, our veterans.”

So far, Sachire’s mantra is paying off. The Irish are off to a strong 4-1 start, slipping up only in Evansville against Northwestern.  In the middle of that lineup stand some key leaders on this year’s team. New Jersey native Matt Che is one of the most important, as the high regard Sachire holds him in indicates. The coach has the utmost confidence in his quiet yet passionate leader.

“What Che shows is very different from what Che feels. He holds it in. He plays with a fire … he’s got an intensity about him,” Sachire said.

Che has helped serve as the soul and emotional strength of this team through its invitationals, conference play and tournaments over the past three years. Yet his flaming emotions would sometimes get the best of him, masking his performances. Learning from those experiences, Che has grown into a model of dedication for the team.

As Sachire puts it, “That was a big part of his growth as a player — being able to control his emotions … he has learned to control it, and he’s a much better competitor because of it, and he’s poised to have a great year.”

Yet another key figure on the team is senior Connor Fu of Andover, Massachusetts. Fu is excited about the opportunity to lead less experienced players through the rigors of the ACC tennis season.

“I think us as older guys who have seen all these matches before … it’s our job to show the younger kids how it’s done during pressure moments,” Fu said.

His enthusiasm for the team, which is hoping to emerge stronger from the challenges of recent seasons, is obvious. On his goals for the season, he said, “Hoping to do a little bit better than last year — we’re playing a lot of the same teams, so hoping to beat some of the teams we lost to and go further in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.”

A potential catalyst for the team may exist in Slovenian phenom freshman Sebastian Dominko. Dominko’s talent has impressed all that have witnessed it, from his veteran teammates to Sachire, who believes his arrival will serve as a huge boost for his squad.

“You bring in a freshman that’s as good as Sebastian is, that gives you a shot in the arm. We feel like we replaced Axel [Nefve] with somebody who is at least as good,” Sachire said. 

Sachire believes Dominko will showcase a “really good season for us”, as does Connor Fu.

“Getting Sebastian was huge for us,” Fu said. Fu will be the one serving as Dominko’s doubles partner on the No. 1 team and is extremely excited about the pairing. “We’ve been putting in a lot of work in practice … still a pretty new team, but it’s a pretty high potential team. We’re both pretty good athletes and know how to play doubles pretty well,” Fu said.

As the Irish return their core contributors from last year along the potential emergence Dominko and sophomore Yu Zhang, they look to rebound from their mediocre 2021-22 campaign. The Irish will travel to Lexington, Kentucky for an invitational this weekend. After that comes a slate of matches against Big Ten opponents. Conference play opens up at home against North Carolina on March 3.

Contact Adam Akan at [email protected]

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