Last season, the LSU men’s tennis program finished with a 12-14 record, winning just four of their 12 conference matchups and losing seven of their last 10 regular season matches. It was still considered a successful season, with the Tigers managing to make the NCAA tournament, due to playing in the deepest conference in the nation and having a few solid non-conference wins, but there was clearly still work to be done.
LSU also lost a lot of leadership, as Rafael Wagner, Malik Bhatnagar and Joey Thomas all graduated. Though they had veterans that could fill those spots, their team lacked experience and would likely repeat last season’s disappointment as a result.
They would elect to go the transfer route to fill those spots, acquiring graduate transfers in Vlad Lobak and Gabriel Diaz Freire from Minnesota and Alabama, respectively, before later obtaining junior Kent Hunter from Cal. The hope was that these players would make an immediate impact and help the Tigers win more matches this season.
Early Season Concerns and their Nullification
During the Fall, the men’s tennis program would face controversy when Head Coach Chris Brandi was placed on administrative leave, breaking up the father-son duo that had been building up the LSU men’s tennis program for the past couple of years. Brandi was expected to take over coaching if his father di lui, Andy Brandi, were to retire.
Despite that debacle, not a single player elected to transfer, leaving the roster without any loss in its potential. Still, it was difficult to gauge how much success this team would have, and that remained difficult even after the team’s first few matches.
The Tigers would replicate their early season success from last season, as they would win six of their seven matches, but the difference here came in their first matchup against a top-25 opponent. Though they lost to South Carolina 4-1, further analysis showed that this match was a lot closer than it should have been.
For one, LSU was playing without Ronnie Hohmann, who currently ranks in the top-25 in singles. That left the team without someone who could: Daniel Rodrigues, who could contend for the singles national title come postseason time.
Despite that, LSU had two did-not-finish matches that could have gone their way, with Kent Hunter holding a lead on Court 2 and Benjamin Ambrosio down 0-1 with a lead in the second set. This team clearly had the potential to put one of the SEC heavyweights down and with a rematch slated for a little more than a month away, their chance would come very soon.
Between their matches against South Carolina, the Tigers would win five of their next seven. In the midst of that span, they would defeat Tulane for the first time since 2019 and only drop matches against teams currently ranked in the top-40.
Even with Hohmann back in the lineup, it was still questionable whether or not this team was capable of taking down South Carolina, who had jumped into the top-10 in the previous few weeks. LSU hasn’t defeated a top-10 opponent since 2013, when they defeated No. 7 Ole Miss 4-3, and they had only provided minor indication that they were capable this season.
However, expectations in the world of college sports are always questionable, and the Tigers proved that on South Carolina’s home court and played what was arguably the best match any Brandi-led LSU team has played throughout their tenure.
The Tigers would jump out to a 3-0 lead after acquiring the double point and two singles points from straight-set wins by Hunter and Gabriel Diaz Freire. 3-0 leads aren’t quite as keepable in tennis as in other sports, but the Tigers had obtained most of the momentum and proven they had progressed.
South Carolina would ultimately mount an impressive comeback, but not without tremendous resistance from their opponents. Lobak and Joao Graca each took their opponents to a third set, and Boris Kozlov narrowly missed out on doing the same after losing a tiebreaker 8-6 to lose the second set.
While it was a heartbreaking loss in the end, this match was proof of the potential this team has and how much they have improved since the beginning of the season. It also clearly provided the team with some extra motivation and momentum, evident in their next few matches.
12 Days, five wins
After losing a tight one to Mississippi State, the Tigers would win five straight and tie their win total from last season. While the Tigers aren’t strangers to win streaks, what was significant about this one was the teams they defeated.
To kick off the streak, the Tigers would take down No. 20 Ole Miss 5-2, headlined by a completely dominant 6-2, 6-1 victory from Ronnie Hohmann over No. 21 Nikola Slavic. That seemed to inspire the remaining Tigers, as all five of LSU’s points came in straight set victories.
Of their next four matchups, two would come against ranked opponents, as the team would defeat No. 41 Vanderbilt 4-3 before defeating No. 32 Tulsa 4-2 less than a week later. And after No. 4 Tennessee broke the streak, LSU would sweep Alcorn State to surpass last season’s win total with five matches remaining in the regular season.
Transfer Impact and Larger Focus on Singles
One of the aspects of this season that separates it from the last decade or two’s is the team’s under-reliance on doubles. LSU has been known to focus heavily on doubles and as a result, have built a reputation of having that as their strong suit while singles was more of to haphazard.
Considering doubles matches only count for one point of a match while singles matches account for the remaining six, it’s understandable why that strategy has not produced desirable results over the years.
The key reason why LSU has had more singles success this season is because they now have the pieces and depth to be more consistent due to their added experience. While Hohmann has won many impressive matches, he can only produce one point per match in singles and because he usually must face their opponent’s best of lui, he is bound to suffer defeat in any match.
As of their match against Florida on Friday, transfers Kent Hunter and Gabriel Diaz Freire have combined for an absurd 31 singles points whilst only surrendering 5 to their opponents (Hunter is 14-2 and Freire is 17-3). Hunter also “upset” Auburn’s Tad Maclean, who was No. 45 in singles at the time, and took a set off Florida’s Sam Riffice, who finished No. 2 in the country last season and is currently No. 26.
Lobak has taken on the toughest role of the transfers, manning Court 2 and filling in for Hohmann whenever he was recovering from appendicitis. As a result, his record of him might not be as impressive as the aforementioned, but after starting the dual season 0-4, he has won nine of his last fourteen to work his way back up to .500.
It is safe to say that the transfers have made a tremendous impact on the team this season, with many of those tough victories in March not likely being possible without them.
Though this team may not match up well with the true juggernauts of the conference like Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, who’s depth knows no bounds, they do have the ability to beat teams they weren’t able to last season, evident by the fact that they did just that.
This team faced off against Ole Miss twice last season, losing by a combined score of 10-2 and never making it look close. Though the Rebels have struggled this season, I still would not discount that fact as anything less than impressive.
If you aren’t convinced of that being a sign of improvement, they were also blown out by Tulsa and Tulane last season, teams they convincingly handled business against this season. Tulane might have dipped in quality as well with the transfer of Hamish Stewart, but Tulsa remains near the top-25 and is a worthy representative of the American Athletic Conference.
And just like No. 10 South Carolina barely scraped by against the Tigers, No. 9 Georgia and No. 12 Kentucky barely scraped by the Commodores, with Vanderbilt (who currently sits at 14-8) also undergoing massive improvements this season and even peaking near the top-25 before LSU defeated them.
Need more? LSU’s next two opponents in Texas A&M and Kentucky are solid opponents to gauge their progression from. Tune in this Friday to watch them face off against the Aggies at the LSU Tennis Complex.