Sam Winterbotham on getting Brandon Fickey back for NCAA tennis tournament
There is the old saying about that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
Clearly, being thrown to the wolves — playing No. 1 singles in the SEC as a freshman — a year ago didn’t kill Mikelis Libietis.
The Tennessee sophomore from Latvia heads into the NCAA men’s tennis tournament Friday as the nation’s No. 1-ranked singles player and No. 1 seed in the individual tournament, which follows the team championships.
He and Hunter Reese also are the nation’s No. 1-ranked doubles team.
“It’s an incredible feeling,’’ Libietis said Thursday as the No. 6 Vols (20-7) did final tune-up work for a 2 p.m. match against South Carolina State (16-4).
“I never thought it would be possible, especially this year. Maybe down the road when I’m a junior or senior.’’
The 64-team bracket opens with UT hosting first- and second-round matches at Barksdale Stadium. No. 23 Clemson meets No. 42 Boise State at 11 a.m., followed by the Vols against the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champs.
The winners meet Saturday at 1 p.m. for the right to advance to the Round of 16 in Urbana, Ill. Admission is $5.
Libietis the sophomore can look back on Libietis the freshman and see the progression.
So can his coach, Sam Winterbotham. A year ago, the August departures to the pro circuit of underclassmen Rhyne Williams and Tennys Sandgren, forced Winterbotham to put freshmen at the top of his lineup: Libietis at No. 1, Reese at No. 2 and Brandon Fickey at No. 3.
“It was a bit of disservice to him, to be honest,’’ Winterbotham said. “It takes a strong personality to handle that.’’
Libietis figured he’d start his career down the lineup. Instead, he got a steady dose of playing the other team’s top dog.
He finished with a 4-7 singles record in the SEC, but his talent was recognized with a first-team All-SEC selection.
“All year,’’ he said, “I was struggling but getting better.
“It was sometimes demoralizing, but it helped me a lot.’’
This year Libietis is 20-2 in dual matches and went through the SEC season 8-1 and was named SEC player of the year.
“Last year I did not show up every week,’’ he said. “This year I knew what’s coming for me and I was ready from day one.’’
The Vols are heavily favored Friday but know they must be on their toes on day one of the tournament.
Survive and advance is all that matters, not rankings.
“I don’t think being No. 1 is pressure,’’ Libietis said. “I’ve accomplished that, but now let’s see what I can do in the NCAAs.’’
Fickey Returns: UT sophomore Brandon Fickey, out for a month due to a shoulder injury, returns Friday and will play No. 3 singles lineup and No. 2 doubles.