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ASU men's tennis quickly closing gap on traditional Pac-12 powerhouses

The Sun Devils aspire to 'own the West' as contenders in a strong conference that includes four top-25 teams


ASU senior Tim Ruehl (left) congratulates senior Andrea Bolla after winning a point against Pepperdine University at the Whiteman Tennis Center in Tempe on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. ASU defeated Pepperdine 6-1.

Four Pac-12 men's tennis teams are currently ranked among the United States Tennis Association's top 25. Collectively, those teams have won 37 team national championships and 80 Pac-12 titles, including the last 11 that have been claimed outright. 

ASU, which is ranked 24th in that poll, has never won either title. 

In a conference packed with powerhouses like USC, UCLA and Stanford, ASU holds itself to the same expectation as those programs despite currently being in just its fourth year since it was reinstated as a program. In fact, head coach Matt Hill said the Sun Devils, who currently sit at 13-6 on the season, want to "own the West."

“Anytime we're in conference play, we're expecting to win every match,” Hill said. “We believe we've got a team to do that."

Hill said he liked how the Sun Devils are "trending" in relation to the top-tier Pac-12 programs, a statement justified by their top-10 recruiting class from last season, which was rated higher than both UCLA and USC's classes.

The gap has begun to close on the court as well. ASU entered this season with a 3-64 all-time record against UCLA and have gone decades without a win at Stanford. 

Yet, over the last eight days, the Sun Devils found themselves on the cusp of picking up their first win against both teams since the program was reinstated, falling 4-3 in a decisive third set in both matches.

Senior Tim Ruehl said he thought ASU clearly played at a high enough level to defeat UCLA but it perhaps wasn’t mentally equipped to do so, a sentiment Hill echoed.

“We really let that one slip, to be quite honest,” Hill said. “We feel like (if) we play them 10 times, we feel good about it.”

Despite the loss, sophomore George Stoupe, who won individually at No. 5 singles against UCLA, said the result was largely encouraging.

“That gave us a lot of confidence, in a way, that we could beat them,” Stoupe said. “Just knowing that we were in the right position on almost every court to win.”

The Sun Devils also reached that level by notching wins toward the bottom of the lineup at Nos. 4 and 5 singles despite the absence of freshman Max McKennon, who began the year at No. 4 singles.

ASU's performance against UCLA reflected the team's depth that has allowed it to consistently survive brief injuries to key players such as Ruehl and senior Makey Rakotomalala, who has generally played at No. 2 singles this season.

“We’ve got 10 guys, and the level is really high," Stoupe said. "Any given day, we could lose to each other; we’re really even.”

Hill said that depth is the team's greatest strength, noting that "any day, another guy could show up and get the job done," and the team is therefore "not reliant on any one guy to win all the time.” 

“We have players outside of our lineup, that are not playing, that are for sure watching matches against a really good school and sitting there going like, 'Hey, my buddy is losing, but I think I can beat this guy,'" Hill said. 

As ASU fights toe-to-toe with the conference's traditional powerhouses thanks to that depth, strong doubles play and a pair of nationally ranked singles players at the top of the lineup, Hill said he remains internally focused in his judgment of the program's progression. 

“I don't use them (the conference's powerhouses) as a measuring stick, because I don't really care what they're doing, to be honest," Hill said. "I know what I believe we need in order to win a national championship, and that's really the standard that we kind of think and operate through — what would it take for us to win a national championship?”

Hill said with the team's cultural development and talent, he believes they are progressing toward that ultimate objective. 

For now, however, Stoupe said that, with two matches remaining in the regular season, the team is determined to achieve a goal they set before the season: win the Pac-12 Tournament. 

"Obviously, we have what it takes to win the (Pac-12) Tournament,"  Stoupe said. "That's the end goal.”

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