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Georgia men’s tennis aims to carry on SEC tradition

“We’ve had some great crowds already,” Diaz said as UGA staff readied the facility Monday. “We had about 2,000 fans at an earlier match this year. It’s been great.”

The Bulldogs hope those fans can lift their play this week. Georgia (17-6, 9-3 SEC) had to win its final two matches against Alabama and Auburn to finish fourth in the regular season. The good news is that gave the Bulldogs one of the four double-byes into Friday’s quarterfinals.

The bad news is they’ll likely draw No. 5-ranked Tennessee in their first match. Don’t let the Volunteers’ No. 5 seeding fool you. They were ranked No. 1 in the nation before a foot injury sidelined Johannus Monday, the country’s No. 4-ranked singles player, in early March. The Vols lost four matches after that, including once to undefeated Florida.

Well, Monday is back in action now for the Vols. On Thursday, they will play No. 13 Alabama, which defeated No. 12 Vanderbilt 4-3 in a play-in match Wednesday. If Tennessee wins as expected, it will face off with Georgia on the stadium courts in the quarterfinals.

“If that happens, it’s going to be a huge match,” Diaz said. “We’ll need that home-court advantage, and we’ll need to play our best match. That’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Georgia beat the Monday-less Vols 4-2 in Knoxville on March 20. But then the Bulldogs turned around and lost to Texas A&M on the road a week later. That loss and one to Kentucky the day after an early-April snowfall have dogged Georgia all season. Their other SEC loss was to No. 3-ranked Florida on March 11 in Athens.

“If healthy, we can compete and beat anybody,” said Diaz, Georgia’s coach for 36 seasons. “Health is a big part of it. We’ve struggled a little bit with that. But we’re growing, and we’re playing well right now. We haven’t played our best yet.”

The Bulldogs are surviving on the strength of two graduate transfers, Tristan McCormick from Notre Dame and Hamish Stewart from Tulane (by way of Scotland). They’ve stabilized the top of the Bulldogs’ lineup in both singles and doubles.

McCormick has been dealing with some knee issues, so his pre-tournament work this week has been limited. Also, the Bulldogs are hoping Trent Bryde, once a stalwart at No. 1 singles, can continue to round back into form. He has bounced all around the lineup his senior season. With 14 of his matches coming at the No. 4 spot, he enters the tournament with a 9-13 singles record. Play at No. 6 has been spotty.

The fiery Stewart has picked up the slack at No. 1. He’s 17-6 in dual matches this spring.

“He hates to lose,” Diaz said of Stewart. “That’s what makes him special. He’ll find a way to raise his game. He’s been a tremendous asset and a tremendous leader for us all year, along with Tristan.”

Strong double play will be key. The Bulldogs have been unpredictable lately in doubles. And since the NCAA went to a single-six-game set format a few years ago, anything can happen as three sets of teams battle for a single match point.

New rankings are due out Wednesday but, as it stands, the No. 11 Bulldogs are fifth among the ranked SEC teams. Florida comes in No. 3, followed by No. 5 Tennessee, No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Kentucky. Texas A&M is 21st and Auburn 28th.

“Everybody’s good; everybody’s good,” Diaz said. “It’s a tough, rough league.”

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