It’s easy to display all the traits that people celebrate in teams and athletes when you’re winning. It’s easy to be gracious. It’s easy to say your team has chemistry.
What’s not easy is dealing with adversity — something the Baylor men’s tennis team got plenty of experience with last season as injuries decimated the roster and a streak of winning at least a share of three straight Big 12 titles came to an end.
But adversity also reveals character and resolve — things the Bears are showing they have plenty of headed into a new season.
“We played with four players last year, and that’s tough to do,” Baylor coach Matt Knoll said. “This year we have seven, and we feel really good, we feel like we’ll be back at our level.
“It’s kind of fun to feel like we’re ranked lower than we deserve to be, because we’ll get a chance to prove it and hopefully be a factor before it’s all over with.”
Despite going 16-14 overall and 1-4 in the Big 12 last season – tied for last – Baylor still managed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the 19th straight season and brings back a wealth of talent, led by senior Max Tchoutakian and sophomore Juan Benitez.
Benitez was named the Big 12 Player of the Week on Tuesday after winning the singles title and teaming with Tchoutakian for the doubles title last week at the Sherwood Collegiate Cup, including two singles wins over ranked opponents.
“Juan has the ability, and he also has the capacity to work and he’s really coachable,” Knoll said. “That’s a rare combination, and we’re just starting to see what he’s about, just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do.”
Baylor, ranked No. 22, opens its dual-match season on Saturday by hosting Incarnate Word and Grand Canyon at the Hurd Tennis Center.
“I think we’ve already built up some confidence and already started bonding,” Benitez said. “I think we’ll have chances to do some big things this season, but that motivation has to come from within. Every match and every time we step on the court, even for practice, we need to have the right mindset to improve and achieve our goals.”
Along with Tchoutakian, a two-time All-Big 12 singles pick and the 2015 Big 12 Newcomer of the year, Baylor also returns sophomore Jimmy Bendeck and adds two talented freshman from Germany in Bjoern Petersen and Constantin Frantzen.
“We have high expectations, we recruited great freshmen, Jimmy is back, Juan is back and we think we had some bad luck last season with a couple of injuries,” Tchoutakian said. “Things didn’t go our way last year, to be honest, but we learned from that and grew from that.
“We’re all focused, all playing the way coach wants us to play. We want to prove we’re better than how we finished last year. We want to prove we’re a Top 10 team.”