TEMPE — To say Arizona State men’s tennis coach Matt Hill is looking forward to the program’s first match would be an understatement.
“Over a 10 out of 10,” Hill said when asked to rate his excitement.
After a 10-year hiatus, the program returns with a match Saturday against Duke at Whiteman Tennis Center.
For more reasons than one, Hill’s enthusiasm is warranted. With the help of the ASU athletic department, and a $4 million contribution from adidas, the sport is back. In May of 2016, athletic director Ray Anderson and his wife, Buffie, donated $1 million to help restart the program after it was discontinued in 2008.
ASU cut men’s tennis, along with wrestling and men’s swimming, to save more than $1 million annually. Boosters helped resurrect the other two sports.
Hill, who was most recently a three-time American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year while at South Florida, has helped instill a team dynamic into a group that is used to playing as individuals.
“When they are out playing a tournament in Croatia, they are playing for themselves,” Hill said. “Now they have some different people that they are really close with and now they are playing for each other. It’s just a different type of pressure than what they have ever felt before.”
Understandably, recruiting has been a complex task for Hill. It is a challenge to attract players to a program that hasn’t played a match in a decade compared to one that is more established.
“They ask about the rankings, they ask about who is on the team and you don’t have anything to say,” Hill said. “There is some different challenges in those conversations that we have never dealt with. Once we got a couple top players in the world coming in, obviously you leverage that, you can traction and they want to be with those guys and it runs smoothly.
“I will say there is an advantage to have a clean slate, because you can sell where your vision is, and there is nothing to say it can’t be that.”
One of those top players in the world, freshman Benjamin Hannestad, a native of Denmark and one of six international players on the team, was attracted to starting a new program at ASU because of Hill.
“He’s been my guy since I was 14. I have known him for years,” Hannestad said. “I have always wanted to play for Matt Hill as a coach, so that’s why I am here.”
Hannestad was the first signee of the revived program and started a chain reaction of bringing other elite players aboard. The national champion in singles and doubles realized how important resurrecting the program was to the athletic department, noting the dedication and support that the Andersons have for tennis.
“I’m very grateful to Ray and his wife, that’s for sure,” Hannestad said. “It shows a lot of confidence in us and we want to make them proud for sure.”
Hannestad’s teammate, senior Michael Geerts, the lone upperclassman on a team filled with freshmen and sophomores, is getting the first opportunity of his career to play for more than just himself.
“Being on the tour, being on my own, everything was very lonely, also financially not very easy,” said Geerts, who is from Belgium. “Being here, surrounded by a great team, with a staff and an athletic department who is there for you is just something really, really nice. It helps mentally to stay fresh and stay focused.”
Because he is a senior, the coaching staff entrusted Geerts with the leadership role, and he has implemented his own style to make it work.
“I don’t want to say to the guys what to do and what not to do because I think they are old enough to decide what we have to do to be professionals, but there are certain areas where I think my experience can help here and there,” Geerts said. “I am just going to translate a little bit of my experience with the guys.”
The Sun Devils’ first match is against the Blue Devils, the same.
“We have some incredible players,” Hill said. “It will be exciting and really interesting to see how they come together and how they work in the system.”
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