Flach quietly builds VU tennis into national power

Vanderbilt won't be able to sneak up on anyone this year, but that doesn't mean anyone should be shedding a tear for men's tennis coach Ken Flach. Last week his Commodores were voted an unprecedented No. 3 in the nation in the ITA preseason poll. Even though ace Bobby Reynolds decided to turn pro over the summer, the Commodores appear loaded for a second straight run at the SEC Championship.

OK, Coach Ken Flach... so you captured the SEC Championship last year, and took Vanderbilt's men's tennis team to the brink of an NCAA Championship... that was all well and good, but we Vandy fans only have one question for you...

What are you going to do for us this year?

"That's the whole dilemma about rising to the top," Flach shrugs, good-naturedly. "You have to try to maintain that, and try and meet everybody's expectations."

Vanderbilt won't be able to sneak up on anyone this year, but that doesn't mean anyone should be shedding a tear for Flach. Last week his Commodores were voted an unprecedented No. 3 in the nation in the ITA preseason poll. Even though ace Bobby Reynolds decided to turn pro over the summer, the Commodores appear loaded for a second straight run at the SEC Championship.

That was made abundantly clear last weekend at the SEC Indoor Championships at Athens, Ga. Competing as individuals, Commodore seniors Chad Harris and Zach Dailey both advanced to the finals as perhaps the top two individual players in the conference. (Rather than have his two teammates risk injury and face off in the finals, Flach elected to return to Nashville and call it a draw. The point was proven.)

Two other Commodores, juniors Scott Brown and Matt Lockin, advanced to the Round of 16 before being eliminated. If one were inclined to be presumptuous, one might draw from that that four of the conference's top 16 players this year are wearing black and gold-- heady stuff for a program that just two years ago was languishing at the bottom of the SEC.

In fact, were men's tennis coaches subject to the same scrutiny that football and men's basketball coaches are put under in the SEC-- Flach, now entering his eighth season, would almost certainly have been fired after his fifth or sixth.

The deck was stacked against Flach almost from the beginning. Upon his arrival in 1996, Vanderbilt only offered four-and-a-half scholarships-- and the departing coach had just awarded three-and-a-half of them.

"Not that that was a horrible recruiting class," he remembers, "but it certainly wasn't up to the standards you'd need to be successful in the SEC."

Not surprisingly, his team fought through his first five years, struggling hard to win only one or two SEC matches each year. "I basically had to wait four years to bring in guys that I felt had the potential to be successful."

Those rebuilding years gave Flach the opportunity to develop his coaching philosophy and familiarize himself with the more interesting, off-the-court parts of the job, such as building a recruiting base.

It was approximately four years ago that the future began to brighten. In Bobby Reynolds, Chad Harris, Zach Dailey and Lewis Smith, Flach signed the recruiting class that would turn the program around.

"I thought we would have been more successful when those guys were sophomores," Flach said, "but it just didn't happen." In 2002 the team struggled through a season marred by demoralizing 4-3 losses, and finished with a 1-9 record-- pretty much on par with previous years. But close observers could see that the Commodores were becoming more competitive.

Then came the breakthrough year of 2003. The goals before the season, in retrospect, were modest-- to finish in the Top 20 nationally, and to finish among the top six teams in the SEC. Winning the SEC Tournament and reaching the NCAA Championship Match were accomplishments that stunned even the normally unflappable Flach.

"At this time last year, we'd never even cracked the Top 20," Flach remembers incredulously. "Winning the SEC, and getting to the national finals-- that was such uncharted territory for us. You just wouldn't have even thought about that before the season. We certainly exceeded all our expectations."

You can say that again. The 2003 season seemed to bring one memorable moment after another... knocking off Georgia and Tennessee in one weekend... clinching the SEC Tournament with a 4-3 win over the Gators... hosting a regional... and that improbable, unforgettable run through the NCAA's. When the dust settled, Flach was everyone's Coach of the Year-- and suddenly you could use the words "Commodores" and "national power" in the same sentence.

The loss of Reynolds (the nation's top-ranked player most of last year) for his senior year was a cruel blow-- but Flach returns five of the six players whom he rode to last year's NCAA Championship match. Now the expectations are enormous, and the challenges are of an entirely different nature.

How will the 2004 Commodores stack up nationally? They'll get a good feel for that Feb. 5-8, when they travel to Seattle to participate in the National Team Indoor Championships. It's the first time Vandy has been invited to the prestigious event (think of it as the equivalent of basketball's Preseason NIT).

"All we can do is continue doing what we did last year... and that's just old-fashioned hard work," Flach says. It's almost become his mantra.

"There are no shortcuts. I've found that the harder I work, the luckier I get."

Coming soon: Flach talks with VandyMania about the upcoming season and his returning players, as his team begins the quest to repeat as SEC champions.

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