It is a year to remember for a number of University of Arizona sports, and that was certainly the case for the Arizona men’s tennis team who reached the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Wildcats finished as the No. 14 team in the country according to USTA, another record set for the highest finish in program history. The fight Arizona showed all year against tough competition shows what head coach Clancy Shields has brought to this team.
“I’ve been with [Shields] for five years now,” senior Alejandro Reguant said. “I mean [Shields] has taught me half of the things I know to this moment. He’s been an incredibly good leader and coach. He’s been a friend and he’s been family to all of us too.”
Shields took home Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors for the second season in a row. He became the only coach in program history to win this award twice and is the first coach to win the award two years in a row since UCLA’s Billy Martin did so in 2013 and 2014. Reguant was not shocked to hear the accolades won by Shields this year.
“For what I think of him getting the Pac-12 Coach of the Year for the second time in a row, I’m just not surprised,” Reguant said. “After seeing how he works and how he treats every single one of us, I think he deserves it and if he keeps going, I think he can make it 10 in a row.”
Shields acknowledged that he and the team did not need that validation this year, and made it clear that this was a team award that was all about the hard work the team and the rest of his staff displayed on and off the court all season.
“The one we won two years ago, it was a validation of the work that we did,” Shields said. “It felt good to know that the other coaches in the conference noticed that this is a program to be reckoned with. This year, honestly we didn’t need that validation. I didn’t need it, but our team was special. We did some incredible things together and winning that award would have really meant nothing to me. It’s nice to be recognized for it, but more importantly we have an incredible staff, an incredible team, great leaders within the team and so it was a total team award and I guess they put my name on it.”
After a strong start to the 2019-20 season was cut short to COVID-19, the Wildcats looked to carry that momentum into this season, and they did just that. It was not an easy non-conference schedule by any means as Arizona was tested early on. This included matches against No. 9 Florida, No. 22 Pepperdine and No. 37 San Diego before the Cats’ took a road trip to Texas where they had matches against No. 3 Baylor, No. 7 Texas and No. 28 Oklahoma.
Despite losing those three contests in Texas, including the one against the Longhorns falling just short with a match score of 4-3, the team didn’t have time to hold their heads down as later that week, they began conference play against two more ranked opponents in USC and UCLA. These were two programs the Wildcats have struggled against historically, but they were able to secure both of these huge victories on senior weekend over the Trojans and Bruins in front of huge crowds at home at the LaNelle Robson Tennis Center in front of fans from both sides.
The Wildcats finished the season 21-8 overall and 5-2 in conference play before falling against USC in round two of the conference tournament. It was at this point when everything turned for the team, making a historic run to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament which included victories over No. 12 Michigan and No. 17 Kentucky along the way before the Wildcats fell in a 4-3 heartbreaker against No. 3 Tennessee. Arizona was the underdog in all of three of these matches, showcasing in front of the country what they are all capable of.
“I would say it was probably the most fun I’ll have on the tennis court in my life,” freshman Gustaf Strom said. “I said to myself all the time and I said to Herman [Hoeyeraal] that this might be the last match of the semester, so you got to enjoy it. I think the team got very close during the NCAA because we knew it also could have been [Reguant’s] last match too and we were playing for him, so it was really fun.”
Strom enjoyed himself a tremendous freshman that led to him taking home the 2021 Freshman/Newcomer of the Year for Pac-12, along with being named to the First Team All-Pac-12. Strom became the first Wildcat in program history to win the Freshman/Newcomer of the Year award and the first Arizona men’s tennis player to earn First Team All-Pac-12 honors since Roger Matalonga did so back in 2006. He led the team in singles wins with 18 of them that included five victories coming against ranked opponents.
His season wasn’t done after the NCAA Tournament as Strom was selected to compete in the NCAA Singles Championship. He drew a first-round match against Val Vacherot of Texas A&M, who was the No. 4 ranked singles player in the country. Strom started out the match on fire, taking the first set 6-2 before getting an early break in the second set that led to a 5-2 lead. He had three match points in that set, but Vacherot was able to battle back before he eventually took the second set 7-5 and the match in the third set which he won 6-3.
Despite the loss for Strom, the way he played being a true freshman in that match up until the 5-2 point of the second set showcases the true upside he holds as he progresses through his collegiate career in Tucson under Shields and the rest of his staff. The fight Strom showcased did not go unnoticed by his teammates, including Reguant.
“He played the No. 4 guy in the country, and he had that guy, a fifth-year senior,” Reguant said. “He was about to kill the guy and what happened at the end happened. He ended up losing, but you could see he was dominating the fourth best player in the country so if the expectations after seeing that are not high for him especially, I’ve never seen a freshman like that play the way he did, and you know be mature on the court like he did. If the expectations aren’t high for him, I don’t know who else would.”
The team as a whole finished with two singles players and two doubles teams ranked according to ITA as junior Jonas Ziverts led the way with a singles ranking of No. 49 with Strom falling not too far behind with a ranking of No. 52 in the country. Ziverts made his second All-Pac-12 Second Team appearance after going 11-9 in singles, with five of the wins coming against ranked opponents. The most notable win came in the Wildcats defeat against Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament, as Ziverts defeated No. 8 Johannus Monday of the Volunteers.
On the doubles side, Reguant and Carlos Hassey finished as the No. 65 team in the country, while Ziverts and Jett Middleton finished a bit behind them as the No. 70 team in the country.
It was a historic collegiate career for Reguant in Tucson. He concluded his career with the Wildcats breaking numerous records, which included becoming the all-time winningest player in program history as well as breaking the record for most singles and the most spring singles wins in program history. He finished this year with 14 singles wins and 13 doubles wins, earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Filip Malbasic also earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention, finishing second on the team in singles wins (15) and third on the team in doubles wins (12).
Up next for Reguant is a trip to the Big Apple in New York City where he got a job as a tennis coach at a country club. He still hopes to play in a few tournaments, but overall his mindset moving forward is gaining new connections.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds,” Reguant said. “As of right now I’ll go to New York, take that job and meet new people. I’ll still be around tennis. I think I’ll still play a few tournaments here and there and see how that goes, but I think as of right now, my mindset is more set on meeting new people, maybe do something related to what I studied in the future because I studied economics. I just want to see how that side of the world is. The business and office job kind of thing and see where that takes me.”
Reguant hopes to come back to Tucson as often as he can and plans to continue to stay in contact with the whole team.
“I’ll come back to visit the guys every year 100 percent,” Reguant said. “I’m going to book my flight in the fall for sure very soon, so I think I’ll stay in touch. I mean I’m going to stay in touch with all of them 100 percent. I still call at least one of them every day and see how they’re doing, so I’ll for sure stay in touch. I’ll go back to Tucson and hopefully one day, I’ll be something more in Arizona too.”
Reguant and Igor Karpovets are the lone seniors departing this season, so the rest of the team will be back on the court under Shields next season with another year of experience under their belt, along with a top recruit in Colton Smith who Shields expects to have a big immediate impact on the court. Smith signed with the team last November.
"I am beyond excited to join a team and coaching staff that are driven day in and day out," Smith told Arizona Athletics. "I feel at Arizona I will have the opportunities and resources that will help me grow on and off the court and I will be a part of something great."
As we look into next season, Shields believes that this team will have some special seniors the rest of the team will want to play for, just like they did for Reguant and Karpovets this past year.
“I know that we’ve got some special seniors next year that the guys are going to play hard for,” Shields said. “I think there is a big-time belief from our players that they can beat anyone in the country. If you look at it, in the Final Four we played all four teams. We lost to Florida who ended up winning it 4-2. We played them tight. We lost to Texas 4-3 having match points on the road. We lost to Baylor who made the finals 5-2 on their home courts in a very tight match and we also played Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament and came a few points so I think our team sees the level and they’re excited to get back to work and to get back to the final site next year.”
The recent success of the Arizona men’s tennis team does so much for the future of the program, and that includes the possibility of bringing in top recruits in the country. That started with Smith, and the team might not be done.
“We’re definitely talking to players that we’ve never talked to,” Shields said. “We are in the midst with a lot of players who in the past may have overlooked Arizona, so that’s exciting for me. We’re not going to go away from our model that has worked here of developing the players that we have and recruiting for the next step of our program. That is the goal. We’re going to keep recruiting better players, better kids but we’re never going to lose sight of developing the kids that are here.”
Shields believes that so often in college tennis, coaches will get ahead of themselves in trying to rely on too many young players. He is going to stick to his model of developing each individual player and putting them out under the lights when he feels they are ready.
I think so many coaches lose sight of that in that they make some strides in their program and then they try to find the shiny new object that is going to come in and take them to the next level,” Shields said. “For me, I think the key is going to be continuing to develop our players here and make the squad that we have here the team that is going to win the national championship and I think we can do it.”
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