A resurrection: Men's tennis is back at ASU

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After a 10-year absence, the ASU men’s tennis program is back in the swing.

"It’s so exciting,” said head coach Matt Hill. “Everybody has been totally receptive to bring the sport back. The tennis community in Phoenix and then also all the alumni who played, they’ve all been just incredible.”

Hired by ASU athletic director Ray Anderson in June of 2016, Hill arrived with literally nothing to work with – no equipment, no staff and no players. 18 months later, the ASU men’s program is making its return to division one men’s tennis.

The ASU program was shut down for financial reason after the 2008 season. Saturday, the Sun Devils will host the 25th ranked Duke Blue Devils at Whiteman Tennis Center in Tempe.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who’ve never played college tennis before,” said Hill, a 3-time American Athletic Conference coach of the year at South Florida.

“We’re trying our best to prepare them to play in that environment – now that you’re actually playing for a team as opposed to playing for yourself. But the guys look good and Duke is one of the better teams in the country so it’s going to be a war.”

Hill recruited talented players from all over the world to join him on his maiden voyage with the ASU program. Senior Michael Geerts from Belgium and freshman Benjamin Hannestad from Denmark headline an 8-man roster hoping to compete right away in the Pac-12.

“I had faith in Matt and his ability to get us to the top,” said Hannestad. “We ended up getting a good bunch of guys during the beginning of the recruiting season and then others followed because it was clear we were going to have a pretty good team.”

Anderson’s effort in restoring the men’s tennis program can’t be overlooked. The AD has an affinity for tennis and upon his arrival in January of 2014, vowed to raise the funds necessary to resurrect the program. Anderson, showing great conviction donated $1 million of his own money to help the restoration efforts.

“We are very grateful for Ray and his wife that’s for sure,” said Hannestad. “It’s been real personal for them and we want to make them proud.”

This story also begins where it ended. ASU’s opening match will be against Duke, the same team that eliminated the Sun Devils from the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Days later then team captain TJ Bellama and his teammates learned the program was being eliminated.

“Because it was so out of nowhere, it made it that much harder,” said Bellama who now works as a physical therapist in Phoenix. “There’s no way to prepare yourself when you’re so focused on one thing and this comes out of nowhere. ‘Shock’ is the word I would use.”

Bellama will never be fully at peace with what happened in 2008, but the 2018 program has his full support and he looks forward to being a part of it.

“There was some hard feeling and bitterness that took a long time to get over,” said Bellama.

“But now with the new staff and new administration, it’s very different at ASU. How can I be bitter at someone like Ray Anderson who put his money where his mouth is? How can I not be enthusiastic about that?

The current players have spoken with Bellama and other former players. They understand their painful memories and will do their best to honor their legacy.

“We talked to them a lot about 2008 and what happened,” said Hannestad. “Of course they were very sad so in a way, we don’t feel like we’re playing just for us but also the 2008 guys who didn’t have a chance to finish here.”

Saturday’s match will begin at 10:30 a.m. and will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.

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