ASU men's tennis' senior class propels program's success

The Sun Devils' four seniors occupy the top four spots in their singles lineup

Four years ago, Tim Ruehl, Makey Rakotomalala and Andrea Bolla made their collegiate debuts for an ASU men’s tennis program that had just one upperclassman on its roster in its first season after nine of nonexistence. 

Two NCAA Tournament appearances by the program later, those three now make up a significant part of perhaps the most crucial component to No. 22 ASU’s success thus far: its outstanding senior class. 

When fully healthy, ASU’s top four singles players are all seniors, including the aforementioned trio and No. 1 singles player Nathan Ponwith. The same is true for its No. 1 doubles pair of Ruehl and Bolla, who began the season a top-15 doubles team in the nation. 

While both Bolla and Ruehl are traditional seniors, Ponwith and Rakotomalala are both in their fifth years, having returned due to the extra eligibility granted to them because of COVID-19.

For Rakotomalala, the choice to return was a “natural” one, wanting to “finish strong” following ASU’s disappointing 4-7 season in 2019-20. Both he and Ponwith were plagued by injuries throughout that campaign, playing just six and two singles matches, respectively, and racking up just one win collectively. 

“We went into last year thinking we had a really good shot of being in the elite group,” ASU head coach Matt Hill said. “With all the injuries we had — I mean, I've never had a year like that.”

Ruehl, who played either No. 2 or No. 3 singles in each of his matches last year, was also affected by injury, playing in just five singles matches. 

“The team was not looking good at that time,” Rakotomalala said. “So, we were like, you know what, let's wait (until) the next season.”

The results this season have spoken to the value of having said seniors available. The Sun Devils currently sit at 6-1 on the season, having won five straight matches. Individually, Ruehl is 3-0 in singles, and Ponwith and Bolla are both 6-1.

Yet, despite that obvious on-court impact, Hill said the seniors' collective value to the program transcends just talent. 

“We have the best chemistry and culture right now than we've ever had here since I restarted the program,” Hill said. “Hands down. There's no question about it.”

Ponwith, who transferred to ASU three years ago, is the only senior who has not been on the team each year since the program returned, leading to a comfortability with each other that Bolla said has been “one of the most important pieces” to the team’s success. 

Hill said that continuity and seniority have produced a level of leadership within the program that was not previously attainable. 

“That's what we haven't had,” Hill said. “Like, how do you have that in a program when everybody shows up and they're all brand new? It’s impossible.”

That leadership was made evident in the team’s handling of a strange, COVID-19-impacted preparation period for the season, as the seniors focused on establishing shared objectives despite having players dispersed throughout the world.  

“The main goal was, when everybody comes back, to get that unity,” Rakotomalala said. “We also have meetings a lot about goals and what we want to achieve this year.”

Bolla added that having been with ASU since the program's first season after its hiatus, he feels the shift in himself from being the one looking for guidance to the one providing it. 

“Coming here, I didn’t know a lot about college, especially my first semester; I looked up to the older guys that were just more experienced than I was,” Bolla said. “I'm just trying to be a role model for the people that actually look up to me.”

Certainly, the senior class’ value will therefore be difficult to replace, especially given there is not a single junior on ASU’s roster. Yet Rakotomalala expressed great confidence in the underclassmen, adding he is very aware of his responsibilities to leave his “second family” and the program he helped revive in the best shape possible.

“A big part of my role is to guide our freshmen so that when we leave, they're ready for the next generation,” Rakotomalala said. 

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