ASU men's tennis has the potential to be one of the best programs in the country this year, but that's dependent on one factor: the performance of their back line.
There are a number of marked differences between players on the front line and players on the back line. There are six different lines in college tennis for the singles competitions. The first three (1,2,3) are known as the front line, and the last three (4,5,6) are known as the back line.
Players on the front line have fewer weaknesses and tend to be better at making in-game adjustments. Players on the back line, not so much.
However, this is only the case for most teams. The best teams have well-rounded players throughout their lineup from the first to the sixth spot. If you want to compete with the best, your roster has to be just as complete as your opponent from top-to-bottom. You can't afford to have any holes.
"We know our top guys are incredibly competitive with the best teams in the country, the question is: 'What are the bottom guys going to be able to do?'" Hill said. "'Are they going to win the majority of their matches at the bottom of the lineup against the best teams in the country?' That's the challenge for our coaching staff and players."
There's no doubt that the front of ASU's lineup can go toe-to-toe with anybody, and they have thus far. Junior Murphy Cassone is arguably the best player in the country, according to his coaches. Freshman Bor Artnak has been labeled by his coach as one of the best players coming into college tennis this year. Senior Max McKennon has brought leadership by playing at a level high enough to qualify for multiple professional tournaments.
"We believe at the top of the lineup, we're just as good as anybody," ASU coach Matt Hill said.
It's the back of the lineup that's the wildcard. Take, for example, ASU's performance two weekends ago when they clinched their first berth to the ITA in program history after defeating Florida State and VCU in back-to-back matchups.
In both of those matches, two of the total four points needed to win were secured by ASU's back line. Freshman Martin Vergara Del Puerto had a match-clinching win against Florida State's Joshua Dous-Karpenshif on Saturday, while sophomore Roi Ginat kept the group's performance going with another win against VCU's German Samofalov on Sunday.
When describing the back line's significance in clinching the ITA, Hill didn't mince words.
"It was the determining factor," Hill said.
To put it simply, ASU doesn’t make the ITA Indoors without the efforts of its back line.
This need for a complete roster is necessary for any team aspiring to be amongst the best in men's collegiate tennis, but it's specifically important for the Sun Devils this season because, at spots beside the back line, they're rock-solid.
The first team to four points wins in college matches. Thus, the path to victory naturally becomes an equation for most teams, including ASU.
When looking at the Sun Devils' roster, there's no reason to think they can't secure three points in every competition. Cassone is expected to win the vast majority of his matches, while Artnak and McKennon will at least secure one point between them in every match. Additionally, the Sun Devils have won the doubles point in six of their seven matches this year. They only need one subsequent point from the back line to secure victory.
ASU's back line is marked by two factors: work ethic and depth.
"It's a blue-collar identity down there," Hill said. "Those guys (on the back line) are really working, doing a lot of extra work, and taking care of a ton of details."
Hill attributes the group's work ethic to their depth. In his view, it's the depth of this roster that breeds competitiveness amongst the players. Everyone is capable of earning a spot on the back line, but not everyone is going to get it. They have to work for it.
"The depth is great, but the byproduct of the depth is what you're looking for, which is a very competitive environment where guys are coming out and doing extra work without being asked," Hill said. "They're making decisions to give themselves a chance to get playing time."
Additionally, the ample amount of options available on the back line gives the coaching staff a lot of flexibility when it comes to putting together a lineup for any given match. The coaches can scheme their lineup based on their individual opponent matchups and feed the hot hand of whichever players have performed particularly well recently.
So, who exactly makes up the depth of ASU's back line?
This season, there have been three main contributors— senior Jacob Bullard, Ginat, and Vergara Del Puerto. Beyond them are also senior Spencer Brachman and sophomore Constantinos Koshis. Brachman has been sidelined for the beginning of the season with an upper-body injury, and Koshis played on multiple lines last year.
Bullard is a veteran presence whose unique playing style has the potential to throw off any opponent he plays against. When asked about standout players on the back line this year, Hill didn't hesitate to mention Bullard.
"Jacob is really starting to prove himself," Hill said. "He won both his matches (against FSU and VCU) in very good fashion, very competitive from him staying point-to-point really well and understanding his style really well, utilizing his style at the right times in the match. He's been impressive."
According to Hill, Ginat is one of the team's hardest-working players. He brings energy and leadership by trying to get the best out of his teammates in every practice. While Ginat's play has varied a lot this season, when he performs, his promise shows.
"If I play my tennis and my game, I totally believe I can beat every guy in the country at the back of the lineup, whatever team it is," Ginat said.
Vergara Del Puerto is a young developmental player, whose positive energy recently sprung him to a key match-deciding win against FSU. Vergara recalls being one set into his match when he looked around and noticed that every other court was halfway through their second set. He knew at that point that his game would be a match-decider. But still, no nerves; only positivity.
"During the match against Florida State, I was the energizer that the team needed, so I'm just going to play like that and bring the energy for every single match," Vergara Del Puerto said.
Everyone at the back of ASU's lineup has high potential. However, it’s clear that everyone on the Sun Devils' roster beyond line three has to put it all together more often and on a more consistent basis.
"There's no reason that they can't be one of the best back lines in the country, but they've got to be able to prove that on a day-to-day basis," Hill said.
Whether or not the ASU men's tennis program reaches unprecedented heights, this season comes down to their back line performance. Sun Devil tennis has the goal of becoming one of the best programs in the country and whether or not they'll live up to that expectation is just as dependent on the back line as it is on Cassone or Artnak.
This season, the ample options of the back line, along with their personalities and performances, could be the main link between ASU and the top dogs of college tennis.
"We have so many good options," Hill said. "It's a good problem to have. It's a problem that the best teams have."
Edited by Vinny DeAngelis, Alysa Horton and Grace Copperthite.