Although coach Eric Shore's Tigers have received NCAA Men's Tennis Tournament bids eight of the past nine years, for the first time ever Auburn has been selected as a host site for an NCAA regional.
The 12th-ranked Tigers open play at spruced up Luther Young Tennis Center at 2 p.m. on Saturday vs. East Tennessee State following a 10 a.m. match pitting Mississippi State vs. South Alabama. The winners of those matches will play at noon for the right to advance to the 16-team NCAA Championships.
The Luther Young Tennis Center has been dressed up with festive colored tents, new AU logos spray-painted into the hillside and a thorough spring cleaning.
"The place looks good," says Coach Eric Shore, whose team will be making its first appearance on the courts in nearly three weeks after falling to Tennessee in the finals of the SEC Tennis Tournament in Knoxville.
Shore says the Tigers are looking forward to the single elimination competition. One team from each of the 16 regional tournaments will advance to the NCAA Championships in College Station, Tex.
"I think they are really eager to get back out there and compete again," Shore says. "I think they are ready to crank it up and there is some excitement around here with us hosting the tournament."
Shore says that the Tigers have taken advantage of the time off with conditioning drills and rest for some of his players who needed it, but notes that his team still has some nagging injuries. "I would like to say that we are 100 percent healthy, but that is not the case--unfortunately. But, we are healthier than we were after the SECs."
Senior Tiago Ruffoni, who plays two or three singles and one doubles, is rehabbing a sore arm. Ruffoni has been resting the arm, but says he should be ready to go on what will be an eventful Saturday for him. "It is going to be a big day for me," Ruffoni says. "In the morning I will be going through graduation and then we have the match in the afternoon."
Tiago Ruffoni is a strong performer on the courts and in the classroom.
Ruffoni, an honor student, graduated in just 3 1/2 years. Commenting on his arm, he says, "I have been resting it, but I should be ready to go. I don't think it will be a problem."
Ruffoni predicts his team will be ready to play well this weekend. "At the beginning of the year we set our goal to be one of the Top 16 teams in the country so we could play at home in the NCAA Regional. We know the courts very well and I think there will be a lot of people here supporting us.
Ruffoni is ranked 13th nationally in doubles with teammate and the Tigers' No. 1 singles player, Rameez Junaid, a sophomore who was invited to NCAA Championships singles competition with his national ranking of 21. Ruffoni, who is ranked 50th in singles, is an alternate for the NCAA singles draw. Freshman Andrew Colombo and senior Mark Kovacs, who are ranked 27th nationally in doubles, will also compete in the NCAA Tournament at Texas A&M regardless of how the Tigers do as a team.
Auburn and East Tennessee State both bring 17-7 records into their first round match. "I know they won their conference and beat Furman, which has a good team, so that is a quality win," Shore says. "Other than that, I don't know much about them. They won their tournament over Furman and that tells me enough. We have to be ready to play on Saturday."
Freshman Andy Colombo has stepped up as a key performer for the Tigers.
Auburn and ETSU have not played since 1979 and Auburn leads the all-time series 2-0. Auburn is 16-22 all-time vs. Mississippi State and 26-1 vs. South Alabama, which lost 6-1 to Mississippi State earlier this season. "That Mississippi State-South Alabama score was a little surprising," Shore says. "I am sure it is going to be a very close match on Saturday."
Auburn has not played South Alabama this season and was a winner at Mississippi State, but it was not an easy victory. "We beat Mississippi State 5-2 at their place, but we were very lucky to win 5-2 that day because we lost four first sets in singles," Shore remembers. "I think we will have a really tough match on Sunday if we are fortunate enough to get by East Tennessee State on Saturday."
Competition includes one, two and three doubles matches (a one pro set format) to earn one team doubles point. Then there are six singles matches, each worth one point.
Junaid/Ruffoni have been the No. 1 singles team for AU while Mark Kovacs has teamed with Colombo at No. 2 and Andre Boz and Estavam Strecker play the No. 3 spot for AU.
Shore has altered his singles lineup throughout the year. In AU's last outing, Junaid played the No. 1 spot and was followed by Colombo, Ruffoni, Kovacs, Mark Van Elden and Strecker. Boz could also see action in singles.
Good weather is forecast for the weekend at the Luther Young Tennis Center. Tickets for the regional will be available on the day of the event with adult admission $5 while student tickets will be $3.
"It will really help us to get a big crowd out here Saturday and Sunday," Shore says. "We look forward to seeing people out there this weekend."
Freshman Colombo, who plays three singles and is ranked 60th nationally, says he and the team are excited about the chance to be hosts for the NCAA Regional. "My father is coming into town, the seniors are graduating on Saturday and it is going to be like one big party. It is going to be nice and festive. The facility is looking great now and the team is getting new outfits so I think everybody is really excited about hosting the tournament. This is our facility and we feel like we are very tough at home."