2018 Season Preview: #10 Carnegie Mellon University

Lucky ASouth got to take Christmas week off. There really was only one thing that was important that happened in the week I didn’t write a season preview and it can be encapsulated by this tweet.

NE is pulling his favorite strategy to try and distract you from the main headline. I won the trophy for the first Blog Fantasy League. Todd Gurley II brought me to the promised land and took the trophy for himself. Good old NE put up a good fight in the finals, but it wasn’t even close to enough. Which takes me to my next tweet.

That’s right, proving the haters wrong is my hobby. And that’s something that CMU is going to have to do, because this article might be construed as a hater article with the way they’ve been playing.

Overview

Carnegie Mellon University has always been a place of promise for its students, whether it be through academics or through tennis. CMU is a perennial top 15 team and more recently have become a staple in the top 10. This has become the norm for a program that has blossomed under long time coach Andy Girard. However, many, including myself, have said that this team should have more potential than what they’ve shown in the past – they are a team that oftentimes falls in the first spot outside of the playoffs. This was the same story as last year, where they missed the playoffs, getting their spot taken by Williams.  The Tartans tightrope act every year makes them one of my most exciting teams to cover – they’ve beaten teams in the top 10 and almost or lost to teams in the top 20. If you want excitement, go no further than the Tartans. This year, I expect more of the same. Let’s take a look, starting with some very exciting news that was just announced for CMU.

http://athletics.cmu.edu/sports/mten/2017-18/releases/20171110mv1a5d

Which leads us to…

Coach: Mike Belmonte, 1st Year (previously assistant coach for 9 years)

Location: Pittsburgh, PA

Preseason Ranking: #10

Blog Power Ranking: #10

Twitter Handle: @cmutennis, the best in the business when it comes to scoring updates

Team Hashtag: Favorite continues to be #breakingplaid

Key Additions:

Ray Boppana (4 star, #163), Kailas Shekar (4 star, #149), Tom Bickel (4 star, #176), Ben Ash (3 star, #301), Josh Pinckney (3 star, #263)

Key Losses:

Kenny Zheng (#3-4 Singles, #2-3 Doubles), Kunal Wadwani (#4-5 Singles), Kiril Kirkov (#5-6 Singles)

TBD Losses:

Michael Rozenvasser (#2 Singles, #2 Doubles), Vayum Arora, Mark Prettyman

Lineup Analysis

#1 Singles, Daniel Levine, Junior, UTR 12.37

Daniel Levine is the guy in CMU, and he will continue to be the guy until he graduates. Levine is one of the most promising players in the nation and his results have gotten better year after year as he’s been in DIII. He won his first ever ITA this past fall and ended up finishing second in Fall Nationals after losing to GAC’s Mohanad Al-Houni. I’ve constantly touted Levine as potentially the best player in CMU history, much to the chagrin of my fellow bloggers – especially AVZ. Levine has the intangibles to become a leader on this young Tartan team and that is where his true value lies. We all know he can be a top 5 player in the nation, but in what could be a trying year for the Tartans, his leadership will be what is most important.

#2 Singles, Michael Rozenvasser?, Sophomore, UTR 12.21

Couldn’t make it past #2 singles without a big question mark. Michael Rozenvasser is an unknown as CMU enters the spring season. He didn’t play at all in the fall, rumors are swirling that he might not come back, and he ended the year last year with an injury. He came into CMU with some questions about his commitment to tennis and we are seeing that now. I will execute this preview with him in the lineup, but do know that if he does not play, this will dramatically affect the trajectory of CMU’s season. Last year, Rozenvasser was the fall ITA winner and finished as a semifinalist at Fall Nationals – that’s the type of potential that he has. He’s gone toe to toe with Jonathan Jemison of Emory and beaten a ton of tough players along the way. If he plays in the Spring, he certainly could be a top 5 #2 singles player. As you’ll see from the rest of the lineup, this could be crucial for the Tartans.

#3 Singles, Chaz Downing, Junior, UTR 11.97

Chaz Downing is another guy who had some question marks when he came to CMU, but a guy that apparently had a lot of potential as well. He’s realized that potential and slots in at the #3 singles spot for CMU. The California native has been able to stave off the injury bug for the most part and came up with some big wins last year including Daniel Park of CMS. He’s lost to a few players around his UTR as well, so the #3 slot seems like a pretty good fit for him. The solid ground stroker had a good fall – his only loss was to Swarthmore #1 Mark Fallati in three very close sets. He also pulled out a tough three setter against Justin Cerny of CNU when CMU was on the ropes in a surprising upset bid by the Captains. Downing has been through a ton of tough matches and if he’s at #3, we’re talking about a rock here at the third line.

#4 Singles, Ray Boppana, Freshman, UTR 11.70

Boppana is the biggest surprise for CMU this year and one that they badly needed. When I took a look at the CMU recruiting class, I saw three players with potential (Boppana, Shekar, and Bickel). I hadn’t heard much about Boppana, and boy has he surprised with a stellar fall. This fall, he’s already notched wins over Wilkes #1 Courtney Murphy, Case #1 James Fojtasek, split sets with Kenyon #1 Jake Zalenski, and made the finals of the ITA Regional Tournament. There he lost to his teammate Levine on the CMU home courts. Not bad for a freshman, especially one that could be playing #4 singles. Again, here is where you see the difference for CMU – if Boppana is playing #4 he could be a top 5-8 player here, if he’s playing #3, put him in the middle of the pack. Soon he will find out that dual matches are a bit different than individual tournaments. I expect some losses along the way no matter where he plays, but CMU obviously wants him a bit further down in his inaugural season.

#5 Singles, Robert Levin, Sophomore, UTR 11.46

Here’s where CMU starts to feel the losses of Zheng, Wadwani, and Kirkov, and they feel it badly. Those three used to be stalwarts at the bottom of the CMU lineup. Now, we’re left with question marks. Levin is the first man up to fill a bottom of the lineup that really is anyone’s game. We did not start out well here as Levin was beaten by CNU’s #4 player in straight sets. We’re talking about a team ranked outside of the top 25 beating your player at a similar position. That does not set a team up for success, and even moreso for a team that has top 10 expectations. Levin is going to need to do some serious work to play a strong #5, let alone a strong #4 singles. With limited results this year and last, I’m cautiously excited to see what this young sophomore can do.

#6 Singles, Kailas Shekar, Freshman, UTR 11.16

This spot is not even close to being set in stone. It could be any of the returning but potentially departed players in Arora or Prettyman, it could be senior holdover Tommy Cheng, or it could be someone that randomly transfers to CMU in the middle of February. Fact of the matter is this spot is a total unknown. Kailas Shekar, a freshman, started his year with a bang by beating the #3 seed Vishnu Joshi of Hopkins in the first round of ITAs. He followed that up with a head-scratching loss to Simon Vernier (UTR 11) the next round. In the dual match against CNU, he barely showed up with a routine loss to Andy Mason (CNU #5). What can we expect out of Shekar? Only he knows, and honestly, he might not know. Your guess is as good as mine and that means we all have terrible guesses.

Doubles

Much like my other ASouth teams, CMU has a tendency to move their doubles lineups around from fall to spring, and even mid-Spring. One thing that we know will happen is that Levine and probably Downing will play at the #1 spot, forming a tough tandem but one that has a ways to go before becoming a force at #1. From there, CMU is going to have to use their depth to make the #2 and #3 spots work – a return by Arora to his previous form would be huge here. If not, they will have to rely on a makeshift lineup that had some success at ITAs, but will feel shaky come dual match season. Again, this is where the TBD losses will be very important as Rozenvasser would instantly legitimize any #2 doubles team that CMU throws out there. Still so many unknowns here, which seems to be a theme across this preview.

Schedule Analysis

http://athletics.cmu.edu/sports/mten/2017-18/schedule

I for one am already thankful for the CMU schedule. Coach Girard (and now Belmonte, I don’t know who made the schedule), has filled this schedule with a ton of important Pool C matches, which is something we haven’t gotten for years. Last year we basically had no overlap between CMU and any of the NESCAC Pool C teams. This year, that has changed.  Let it be known that this schedule is currently incomplete – but CMU oftentimes plays the same opponents when they are back on the East Coast, so I can kind of guess what’s going to happen in terms of scheduling.  Key matches for CMU are below:

 

  • Indoor Nationals – match against Chicago, potentially GAC and Redlands
  • Spring Break – matches against Wash U, Amherst, and Wesleyan
  • Rivalry Matches – likely matches against Hopkins, Mary Washington, potentially Case Western
  • UAA Tournament – potential matches against Case, Emory, Wash U/Chicago

 

This is a schedule chock full of Pool C matches and very important ones. Virtually every match on their schedule is from one of the Power 3 conferences and that means many opportunities for the Tartans to either lock in their spot or totally destroy it. Based on CMU’s history, it will probably be somewhere in the middle. As always, I don’t make predictions based on schedule because honestly it is a dumb exercise. However, there are a few must wins on the schedule – I think any back draw match at Indoor Nationals is absolutely a must win, especially with Chicago looking very fine and a tough first round match for the Tartans. Wins against GAC and potentially Redlands or Trinity TX would go a long way for the Tartans resume.  After that, CMU basically has to take one of their two NESCAC matches against Amherst or Wesleyan, most likely Amherst. East Coast matches against Hop and UMW are must wins of course, and the potential 4-5 match at UAAs is a very big deal. That formula should be enough to get CMU into the tournament as they will have a big SCIAC win, a big NESCAC win, and a big UAA win. Wins in those three conferences get teams tickets to the big dance, which eluded the Tartans last year.

ASouth’s 3 Keys to Success

 

  • Figure Out Rozenvasser – I can’t say this enough and it’s a broken record at this point. Get Mike Rozenvasser to play on the team this year, otherwise the season may be over before it starts. No disrespect to the current players on the team, but a top 5 #2 singles player kind of makes a difference.
  • Buy In to Belmonte – While the guys are probably used to the coaching style of Coach Belmonte at this point, there is a difference between a head coach and an assistant coach. There’s a reason why schools with two dedicated coaches are more successful than those with one for both sides – it all comes down to the amount of time and focus one coach can spend on you. This is important, especially for a young team, and I am interested to see if there are any changes in what CMU does. Someone keep me in the loop.
  • GOAT – This could be the most important year of Daniel Levine’s career. He is expected to be a top dog this year, and his play is just as if not more important than the return of Rozenvasser. Levine represents one of the true advantages CMU has, but we all know how tough it is to play #1 singles. To be quite honest, anything less than a 75% winning percentage from Levine against top 10 teams is going to make CMU’s chances of victory extremely low, especially with a broken team. Lots of things have to go right this year, Levine is one of them. I have faith.

 

FIN

That’s all I’ve got for you folks, since I’m headed off to watch Pitch Perfect 3 even though it got a 14% on Rotten Tomatoes or something. Could I be watching the Last Jedi? Yes. Could I be stuffing my face with Christmas Leftovers? Yes. Could I be taking a look at CMU’s history of play in the postseason? Yes. But I am not. Look out for a very interesting season for the Tartans. ASouth, OUT.

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