Men’s tennis continues to build momentum
Bulls tennis aims for second NCAA tournament appearance in three years
The Buffalo Bulls men’s tennis team (9-5, 4-0 Mid-American Conference) came into the 2016-17 season with six new recruits.
Only senior Tony Miller and sophomore Ethan Nittolo remain from last year’s team. Four players graduated and two players left UB.
A complete overhaul of the roster led to coach Lee Nickell’s low expectations.
“I knew that we had a very talented group coming in, but having six new guys in a team format, in an individual sport, it takes a while to figure it out,” Nickell said.
The Bulls’ 4-0 start to league play is the first time the team has accomplished that feat since the 2011-12 season.
“After the first few weeks of the spring, our associate head coach [Matt Lucas] and I kinda looked at each other and were like, ‘we’re pretty good,’” Nickell said. “At that point, our expectations totally changed.”
Two newcomers, freshman Villhelm Fridell and junior Petr Vodak have jumpstarted the Bulls into being favorites in the MAC, and potentially earning a NCAA tournament spot.
Fridell and Vodak have been named MAC Doubles Team of the Week twice so far this season and hold a 6-1 record together. They do not overpower their opponents, but have a finessed game that causes them to outsmart the opposing team.
“I think Villhelm is very good, he’s good from the baseline and that’s a good combination for doubles as well,” Vodak said. “Me as a left, I have a better forehand and he has a better backhand, so that’s a good combination. He can take those backhands from the middle, which is his best shot.”
Despite the immediate impact the two have had on the team, Nickell said Fridell and Vodak weren’t paired together in doubles until a couple weeks into the spring.
“Doubles is kind of a tricky thing. You have an idea of who is going to play well together and we try to match game styles,” Nickell said. “Villy hits the ball very flat and low. He’s good at net. Petr’s left handed so that adds an aspect to it and he’s very good at net, he understands doubles and where to be.”
Fridell and Vodak’ versatility is one of the team’s X-factors. In addition to being the second doubles team, they each play singles as well.
Fridell recently won MAC Singles Player of the Week from March 27 to April 2. He holds a 17-7 overall record and is 8-3 in tournaments. Prior to coming to the U.S., he was ranked eighth nationally in his home country, Sweden.
However, Fridell enjoys doubles more and winning with Vodak by his side.
“I think it’s more fun, you get the teamwork side of it,” Fridell said. “It’s fun to win with another person. However, the fun in singles, it’s really fun after you win because you know it’s all on you.”
What Fridell and Vodak enjoy most about doubles is leaning on each other during matches. In NCAA tennis, doubles is only one set. In singles, it is best two out of three sets.
Nickell takes pride in his ability to develop players as the season continues. One of the biggest developments this year has been the emergence of Vodak as a vocal leader.
“Petr is a very quiet dude, so it took us a couple matches,” Nickell said. “We finally met with him after Yale and were just like ‘Look, this isn’t good enough,’ and ever since then he’s been the leader in terms of energy and positivity. That’s as big of a development as me fixing his serve.”
The team’s success in the MAC could be attributed to the grueling nonconference schedule at the beginning of the season. UB has played current top 25 teams Cornell and Columbia, along with Harvard, Princeton and Yale from the Ivy League conference.
Although UB went 1-5 in those matches, with the lone win coming against Brown, Nickell knows that playing against a historically better conference has benefited his team.
“They get the top American players, every year we go in as underdogs no matter who we’re playing. They’re all blue chip guys,” Nickell said. “It would be like our football team playing Michigan or Ohio State.”
In three of the past four seasons, UB has knocked off an Ivy League opponent. The Bulls men’s tennis team had never beaten an opponent from the conference before Nickell became the head coach in 2009-10.
UB has three regular season matchups left until the MAC tournament.
Coach Nickell’s expectations are now high.
“Our expectation is to win the conference,” he said. “That’s it. Period.”
Even though the program is only two years removed from an NCAA tournament appearance, there is a sense of uniqueness to this team.
“Maybe it’s just because there are new guys and there’s no preconceived notions, but everybody’s just buying in, listening, doing what we ask,” Nickell said. “It’s a very close knit tight knit group.”
Justin Bystrak is a staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org