by Chuck Pool (email@example.com) -
Tommy Bennett and David Warren, who came to Rice at a time when they men’s tennis program was in a downswing, will look to create one last chapter to a standout list of accomplishments when they make a repeat appearance in the NCAA Men’s Doubles Championship on Thursday in Athens, Georgia.
The Owls pair will take on Juan Benitez and Will Little of Baylor on Thursday morning at the Dan Magill Tennis complex. Start time for the match will be released later.
They are the first Rice doubles team to make a repeat appearance at the NCAA Championship since Richard and William Barker in 2003 & 2004 and they will be looking to register Rice’s first win in the doubles event since Tony Hearle and Robert Searle won their opener in 2006.
After joining forces near the end of the 2016 season while leading Rice to 23 wins and its first Conference USA title since 2010, Bennett and Warren earned a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the NCAA Championship where they won the opening set against Tennessee’s Jack Schipanski and Luis Valero, only to lose, 3-6, 6-3, 10-7.
This year, the duo again led Rice to 23 wins and to the school’s first repeat conference title in men’s tennis since 1972, but their doubles ranking left them just outside the automatic qualifying line for the doubles. While practicing for the NCAA team championship, they learned that they had qualified again.
Both say the experience of last year, as well as the reality that this opportunity is their last to represent Rice in competition, has allowed them to prepare free from pressure.
“The big difference is Tommy and I have so much more experience in playing together,” Warren said. “We understand much better how we complement each other on the court. Usually in a doubles match, it comes down to one or two points that can decide the match and I think we are better prepared to handle those key moments.”
“It was up in the air for so long, I think David and I had assumed we would not get in. I think our inexperience and anticipation got the best of us last year, but this year we are definitely going into it more relaxed and let the results take care of themselves,” Bennett said.
During the preparation time for the doubles, the teammates took a break from practices to tape a video feature in which they were quizzed about how well they knew each other off the court. The humorous results have been a source of continued feedback after they arrived in Athens.
“I’ve had a bunch of friends make comments about it and it’s been fun to see the reaction,” Warren said. “I know Tommy has been taking some grief from his friends.”
“The video was hilarious, but I keep hearing from friends in England who are giving it to me for calling it ‘soccer’ instead of ‘football’. I’ve had to explain to them that I didn’t want anyone here to think I wanted to play American football,” Bennett explained.
As they have prepared for their final assignment, both players and head coach Efe Ustundag have been able to soak up some of the unique atmosphere that is a staple of NCAA Championships at the Magill Complex.
“Georgia is one of the iconic places in college tennis and it’s exciting to have the chance to play my final college matches in this setting,” Warren said. “It’s been great to be here for a couple days to watch the team finals and take in the great atmosphere.”
“This is a fantastic facility and it’s been a bit of shame that the weather has forced some of the matches indoors, but it was amazing to be able to watch the finals yesterday,” Bennett added.
The setting in Athens is close to Ustundag’s heart because he closed out his own career on these same courts, teaming with Shane Stone as an unseeded entry to win a pair of matches to earn All-American status in 1999.
He can only hope that some final burst of karma is in the offing and his seniors can enjoy the same or a greater level of success in the coming days.
“These guys are responsible for getting us back to the national limelight,” Rice head coach Efe Ustundag said. “They did it the right way. They are passionate about Rice and accomplished so many great things with class and hard work.”
“It’s special to share this time with them, especially here in Athens. This is the Mecca of college tennis and I am happy they have the chance to end their careers playing here. Everything came together for us in 1999 and I hope the same thing will happen to David and Tommy.”
“There will be emotions, knowing this is the last time we will be on the court together as coach and players, but I ‘m looking forward to a couple more matches before we see it end,” Ustundag stated.