PASADENA, Calif. (Jan. 30, 2015) – Coming off a decisive victory over Occidental College in the SCIAC Championships to break a five-year, 45-match conference losing streak, the Caltech men's tennis team is still riding the momentum as it heads into the 2015 season with a No. 13 ranking in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association West Region Poll.
"The guys have put in a lot of work, playing and conditioning all throughout the offseason," Head Coach Mandy Gamble said. "We're coming into the season very fit, motivated and united. We're focusing on playing to our strengths and really supporting each other as a group. We are a high-energy, positive team that really does feed off one another."
The Beavers return a young but experienced core that can mix and match anywhere between the top four courts, and had no shortage of successes in 2014 on which to build. Caltech took points against several nationally ranked teams over the course of the season, including No. 1 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, No. 13 Pomona-Pitzer and twice against No. 17 Redlands and culminating in the historic 7-2 victory over Oxy.
"We couldn't have dreamed of a better finish to last season," Gamble said. "We were fresh despite it being the third match in two days and ready to accomplish something big."
While the loss of four-year #1 singles player Devashish Joshi is of course significant, that effect should be mitigated by the Beavers' strong returning quartet of junior Rushikesh Joshi (Sunnyvale, Calif. / Archbishop Mitty), sophomore twin brothers Ruthwick and Sathwick Pathireddy (Irvine, Calif. / Whitney) and sophomore Morgan Lebby (Laguna Beach, Calif. / Laguna Beach). All four were fixtures in the middle of the lineup in 2014 and appear ready to accept the challenge of moving up in the order.
Joshi could be the early favorite to seize the #1 position following his older brother's graduation. The team captain is the unquestioned leader on and off the courts, and has brought his play to another level since the end of last season, when he split time between #2 and #4 singles.
"Rush is doing an amazing job leading this group – it's a tight unit as a team because of him," Gamble said. "He is looking amazing on the court already; he has always had a good return but is showing a lot more power too, along with the rest of the team. He is absolutely ready to step up a court, regardless of where he ends up playing."
The #2 and #3 spots are likely to go to the twins to start the season. Sathwick, the elder of the pair by roughly a minute, saw most of his time at #3 last season, going 7-5 there while posting a 1-5 mark at #2. Ruthwick, meanwhile, worked his way up from the #4 spot, where he went 7-3, to #3 (3-0) and finished the year at #2 (1-3), surpassing the previous 10-year-old record for wins in a single season (11). Both twins picked up crucial wins in the season-ending victory over Oxy.
"Sathwick is a more methodical, cerebral player, while Ruthwick's best attribute is his cannon of a serve," Gamble said. "They could be in for a big year – they have matured a lot since coming in as freshmen, and I'm starting to see their personalities come out more on the court."
Lebby should round out the returning regulars at #4 after winning a program-record 12 matches, with 11 coming between #5 and #6 singles and one in his only match at #4.
"Morgan has a very good serve, a huge forehand, and may have even grown a bit since last season," Gamble beamed. "He played a lot of youth tournaments but really just started getting over the hump consistently last year. He's getting accustomed to winning, and that can really unlock his potential."
Junior Alexander Henny (Scarborough, Mass. / Scarborough) is also back from last year's squad and will slot into either #5 or #6 singles. Although his chances were limited last season, he did post a 1-2 record between #5 and #6 singles and has the grinder mentality to earn some tough points at the back of the lineup.
"Alex is a guy opponents hate to play because of his reach and range," Gamble said. "He draws every opponent into a match with him, and is very strong mentally and as a competitor."
With the one remaining spot up for grabs, any one of juniors Ishan Mehta (Fort Gratiot, Mich. / Port Huron Northern) and Leo Zornberg (Austin, Texas / Liberal Arts & Science Acad.) and freshmen Fabio Arai (Sao Paulo, Brazil / Colegio ETAPA) and Zachary Lipel (Tarzana, Calif. / North Hollywood) could lay claim to a regular spot in the lineup, or the quartet could rotate throughout the season depending on matchups.
"Of course I'd prefer to have someone we can regularly play at #6, but everyone brings something different to the table," Gamble said. "Ishan, who is returning after a year off, has really good hands, knows the game well and is creative. Zack has a lot of potential, a very good forehand and his serve is really coming along. Leo is probably the fittest player on the team and is always doing extra work, whatever he can to improve. He is a very vocal and positive leader as well. Fabio is much newer to the game but is very dedicated and shows a real desire to improve every day, so he could fight his way into the mix too."
After taking over at court #1 midway through their rookie year, the Pathireddy twins will look to make the top doubles slot their own for the next three full years. The pair went just 1-7 at the top spot after posting a 7-4 mark at #2 doubles, but their lone win came when it mattered most, once again against Oxy in the SCIAC Championships. Ruthwick's rocket serve and aggressive groundstrokes perfectly complement Sathwick's net game, and with the duo starting to show more assertiveness and strategic thinking, they could quickly become a team to fear across the conference.
"Our doubles play as a whole has just gone to the next level," Gamble said. "The twins have obviously been playing together their whole lives, but they're just now starting to really play off each others' strengths."
Joshi and Lebby are set to move up a court as well after going 8-7 at #3 doubles and finishing the year 1-3 at #2. With both showing signs of taking individual steps forward, their doubles game should not be far behind.
"Rush and Morgan are ready to step up from #3 for sure," Gamble said. "They play so well together and are really embracing the steps up individually and as a doubles pairing."
The third doubles spot could shake out any number of ways, but Henny and Metha will get the first crack as the most experienced pairing to open the spring, with both Lipel and Zornberg pushing to earn some time there as well.
"Ideally, I would love to find a good complement for Henny, who is catlike quick at the net and has strong volleys," Gamble mused. "Zack has very strong technique with a consistent serve, while Ishan just needs to cut down on errors and Leo's fitness could be really useful."
"This is a really young team doing all the right things," Gamble said. "We are arguably facing a more uphill battle on paper than last year, but then again we have never had a chance to build on such a great finish. We just have to believe we can start getting some big wins, and they'll come."
The Beavers open the season on Saturday, Jan. 31 as they host No. 21 Redlands at 10 a.m.