Although Auburn is certainly not going to be a favorite to win the big prize, the Tigers have enough firepower to seriously compete with anybody in the country, including No. 1 ranked Georgia, which took a razor-thin 4-3 victory over the Tigers in the regular season.
Three of Auburn's key players have an opinion on what it will take for the Tigers to make a strong run in NCAA Tournament play. Auburn is the No. 1 seed in its four-team regional that starts with a 10 a.m. match on Saturday pitting Mississippi State vs. South Alabama followed by Auburn vs. East Tennessee State at 2 p.m. The winners of those matches meet at high noon on Sunday for the right to be one of 16 teams to travel to College Station, Tex., for the NCAA Championships.
Auburn's No. 1 singles player, sophomore Rameez Junaid, is known for his extra conditioning workouts and mental toughness. When asked what the Tigers need to do to advance to the nationals, he says, "We have got to play tough this weekend. These guys coming in here have good teams."
College team competitions start with three doubles matches and the team that wins two of those three earns the doubles point and the early momentum.
Rameez Junaid is Auburn's top singles player.
"I think it is very important to win that doubles point, but if you want to be able to go all the way, you have got to be able to win four singles matches," Junaid says. "We have the ability to do that on any given day. We have one of the best doubles lineups in the country, but it is going to happen when a team comes out and plays better doubles than we do. Tennessee did that and beat us at the SEC finals. That is the scouting report on Auburn. Come out and play hard for the first hour and you could be home against Auburn. We took a pretty big beating from Tennessee. I think we learned from that. The first time we played them we got the tough doubles point and beat in a close match. The second time they got the doubles point and we took an absolute beating from those guys."
Junaid is ranked 21st nationally in singles. "I am playing well," the sophomore says. "I am trying to get over a few injuries. I am just trying to get it together coming back from the SEC Tournament."
Freshman Andy Colombo is in good health, but says he, too, likes the nearly three week layoff to prepare for the NCAA regional. "I think it probably helped some of the guys and maybe hurt some of the others. Me personally, it helped me because I like to take some time off between events. Also, I think I am a lot hungrier now. I am really looking forward to Saturday and Sunday. I am used to playing back to back matches, day in and day out like we will do this weekend."
With classes finished, the freshman says the Tigers can devote all of their energy and concentration to winning the regional. "This is the absolute lifestyle," he says with a smile. "You don't have to worry about anything but tennis now."
Playing in the extremely tough SEC, where the No. 1 ranked team Georgia didn't even reach the league tournament finals, has the Tigers ready to take on anybody, even the No. 1 Bulldogs. "We almost had Georgia," Colombo says. "There were a couple of matches that were real close. On any given day, I believe we can beat anybody in the country hands down." AU was one tiebreaker away from taking out the Bulldogs, but lost the match 4-3.
Colombo says he is happy the Tigers got a regional so seniors Tiago Ruffoni, Estevam Strecker and Mark Kovacs can go through graduation ceremonies on Saturday morning. Personally, he says he doesn't mind playing away from home.
"Getting the regional here was a team goal," he notes. "I think it is more important to some of the other guys because I don't mind playing on the road. I don't really mind the crowd taunting me and on the road there are less distractions."
When asked what the key for his team is to advance to the NCAA Championships, Colombo says, "Getting off to a good start will be important for us and that means getting that doubles point to start the match. We have six good singles guys who can win on any day. I like our chances vs. anybody if we only have to go 50-50 in the (six) singles matches to win."
Ruffoni was playing great tennis earlier this season, but is trying to bounce back from an arm problem that has limited his workouts this year. If he is back on his game this weekend, AU will be tough to beat.
The senior says he is excited about the competition this weekend. "At the beginning of the year, we set our goal of playing at home for the NCAA Regional. I think it is a big advantage because we know the courts well and we will have a lot of people here supporting us."
He says the time off between the SEC Championships and NCAA play has been a positive for the Tigers. "I think it was good for the team so we could get some rest and get some injured people healthier," Ruffoni says.
Tiago Ruffoni is nationally ranked in both singles and doubles.
The senior says that he is looking forward to Saturday in particular because he will pick up his degree in international business in the morning and play tennis in the afternoon. "I had my last final on Wednesday and now I can concentrate on tennis and finding a way to get to the nationals."
When asked the key to his team's success, Ruffoni says, "f everybody gives a 100 percent on the court, I think we will be fine. Even if we have a bad start, I think we will do well if everybody hangs tough and never quits."