May 15, 2007

Venkataraman eased tennis’s growing pains

As the Maroons bested nationally ranked Carthage 6–3 for the first time in men’s tennis history this March, fourth-year Vivek Venkataraman could only have been thinking about how far his team had come.

Four years prior, Vivek had watched as his ragtag men’s tennis squad, then on its way to an 8–15 record and a last-place UAA finish, took a 7–0 beating at the hands of the regional rival Redmen. Coming aboard a team that desperately needed a boost, Venkataraman wasn’t Chicago’s only newcomer, making his debut alongside head coach Marty Perry.

“I came when the program was really beginning,” said Venkataraman, who started his career at first singles before injury cut his season short. “It was obviously a very frustrating season.”

Yet despite the fallbacks, Venkataraman stuck it out. His second-year campaign marked a complete turnaround for the program. Rebounding from his freshman injury, Venkataraman played at third and fourth singles and second doubles, racking up 17–13 and 15–8 marks. A big singles win in the UAA third-place match helped the Maroons edge out Wash U 4–3, rocketing the team up an incredible five notches in the rankings.

“At every UAA since my first year, I’ve been really pleased with the team overall,” Venkatarman said. “Personally, my singles win two years ago to help beat Wash U was one of the highlights of my career.”

Moving up to the second and third slots his third year, Venkataraman enjoyed less solo success, going only 11–13. Yet this slip in the singles rankings came with his development into a true doubles phenom. Venkataraman paired with All-American Ward Bortz (A.B. ’06) at the top doubles spot to go 9–3.

“He’s really developed into an extremely talented doubles player,” Perry said. “He doesn’t look for a lot of attention. He doesn’t need a lot of coaching.”

Although his tandem play draws praise, Venkataraman’s equally important efforts at the difficult top singles slot often go unsung. He struggled to a 1–13 record at the top of the squad’s deepest lineup of his career.

“We haven’t had a strong number-one singles in recent years, as our strength has come from our depth and our doubles,” Perry said. “Vivek did a great job filling that void, knowing that he may not win a lot of matches but still just staying out there and battling.”

If his on-court contributions weren’t enough, Venkatarman matches his playing prowess with equal leadership in the locker room and on the quads. A three-year captain, Venkataraman has extended his commitment to the Maroons to include tasks like keeping teammates informed about schedules and deadlines.

“He’s had as big a role as anyone in the transformation of the team,” Perry said. “Not only leading on the court and playing hard, but also he’s been very helpful with recruiting and helping all the little things that you think are trivial but really matter combined together.”

Since his name has become synonymous with the Maroons’ journey from UAA bottom-feeders to serious contenders, it seems appropriate that Venkataraman turned in the most inspiring performance in the team’s historic topping of Carthage.

“Against Carthage, when we beat them for the first time, he played what was really the first great match of the year against one of the most talented guys in the region,” Perry said.

Though he lost the tight decision 3–6, 6–3, 6–4, Venkataraman’s determination to fight through each and every one of his matches showed through, displaying his brand of leadership that is well suited for a young team with big prospects looking for veteran guidance.

Despite being at the helm of such a shift in his program’s momentum, the team’s accomplishments and prospects for the future seem to matter more to Venkataraman than any of his personal feats.

“I’d say the team’s transformation has been the main aspect of my time here, and I’m glad to be a part of that,” Venkataraman said.