SPORTS

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May 30, 2008

Sithian embraced mentor role as tennis team grew around him

Looking back at their careers, some seniors will point to championships or dominant performances or astounding career statistics.

Fourth-year tennis player Bharath Sithian would rather talk about centering his chi on the court.

"My parting thoughts for the team are to stay balanced on and off the court and never forget the importance of having control of your chi," Sithian said. "If they do this, they will continue to rise in the rankings in years to come."

Four years ago, he was probably thinking more about his hairstyle than the philosophy of his game.

A successful high school career facing tough competition from New York's best private schools set Sithian up with a slightly more than confident attitude on the court, one that his transition to the University of Chicago would soon challenge.

"There were some...things that differed between college and high school tennis I had to get used to," Sithian said. "In high school, I was kind of the 'big man on campus,' so coming here was an adjustment. For instance, in high school I used to wear hair gel on the courts, something I quickly found out I couldn't get away with at the college level."

Sans hair gel, Sithian found himself ready to play his role on a team with more than enough potential to build on the previous season's 7-16 record.

"I was definitely very impressed with the level of talent of the entire incoming class. I had a feeling that the team would be able to do well in DIII," Sithian said.

After earning a spot on the squad, Sithian immediately made his presence known, compiling career-best season performances in both singles and doubles, with records of 19-10 and 15-13, respectively.

As one of four rookies on the team, Sithian recorded the squad's second-highest winning percentage in singles while competing at mostly the fifth and sixth slots.

More importantly, though, the infusion of young talent marked the righting of the men's tennis ship at Chicago. A squad that finished the previous season dead last in the conference tournament closed out the 2004-2005 season with an 18-10 record, placing third in the UAA tournament and capturing a bid to the D-III tournament for the first time in program history.

"It was definitely my best year statistically so I was really happy with how I performed my freshman year," Sithian said. "By the end of the year. I had really matured as a player and a teammate."

The program's turn-around, however, would force Sithian to compete for playing time even after a successful rookie season.

Over the next three years, Sithian would see his match total drop from 57 in his first-year to just 20 in his fourth-year. The Staten Island native would spend most of the "golden years" of his athletic career watching from the bench.

"I certainly had a bigger role on the team my first three years than I did my senior year, but that was no surprise to me," Sithian said. "As a team, each year we were performing better and moving up in the rankings. I was always sure that we were going to get great recruits, and I was going to have to fight for a spot on the team. I was not at all frustrated with the lower playing time, so long as I was able to contribute."

So while statistics might indicate a diminished role for Sithian this season, it would be the veteran's philosophical approach to the game that gave him a renewed role on the squad. The once-cocky youth had developed into the squad's spiritual leader, a mentor to up-and-comers like first-year Mark Bonner, Sithian's partner at third doubles.

"I have tried to use my time to teach my teammates about the benefits of playing a spiritually centered match," Sithian said. "I think I was able to succeed as a tennis player because I was always in control of my chi. I have made it a point this year to teach the other guys on the team the importance of channeling positive chakras and reflecting away negative ones."

After three seasons of playing with multiple doubles partners, Sithian has especially channeled his efforts toward developing Bonner's doubles play, hoping to round out a strong doubles lineup for the future.

"Mark and I were able to work very well over the course of the year," Sithian said. "I basically took Mark under my wing.... I tried to teach him everything that I learned about doubles over the years so that he could be successful with future doubles partners."

Increasing his focus on the tactics of winning each point during his first season at Chicago, Sithian has thrived this season as one of two fourth-years on the squad.

Modest records of 3-1 in singles and 8-8 in doubles did not detract from Sithian's run as a tennis elder, as he shifted his focus to working with the team's younger players, who Sithian is confident will add to the squad's string of four consecutive winning seasons.

"I thought that by the end of the year everyone had learned how to be smart collegiate players and more importantly in my mind, how to be spiritually balanced tennis players," Sithian said. "I am glad my emphasis on spirituality was able to rub off on them, and I am sure it will help them in years to come."

There won't be any fireworks or festivities for Sithian or for his team, but the fourth-year departs from Chicago content with his life on the court over the past four years.

"I am very pleased with my career here," Sithian said. "When I first got here the team had accomplished next to nothing, and as I am leaving we are consistently ranked in the top 20 nationally every year and I know the team will only get better and better in years to come."

As Sithian moves back home after this year, he will look to make a transition to competitive squash in New York while pursuing a career in acting.