Photo: Top L-R: Nick Chua, Peter Leung, David Liu, Luke Tsai; Bottom, L-R: Ankur Bhargava, Jay Tee, Deepak Sabada
Since the Class of 2018 arrived on the University of Chicago campus, the men’s tennis team has reached new heights, but a lot more went into the program’s success than on-court talent.
The Prevailing Culture
"During the interview process it became clear that the men's team at UChicago had a bit of a reputation, and not in a good way," said head coach Jay Tee. "As a first-year head coach I thought I could just walk in and solve all of the problems in a matter of weeks, which turned out to be completely naive. Luckily, we did have some really good people on the team; it just took a lot longer than I expected to get everyone to buy in."
Ankur Bhargava and Deepak Sabada came into the Chicago program full of steam in the fall of 2011, the year before Tee arrived, but quickly became demotivated by the disposition of the team. "In the off-season (after fall ITA’s), Deepak and I were walking to the courts with our racquets,” Bhargava remembered. “Some of our teammates saw us and said, ‘We really don’t do anything in the preseason.’ They viewed that time as a period when the weather was about to get bad and school is ramping up so they would just pick the racquets back up in January. We were confused. Don’t we want to get better? That was just the culture then.”
In some ways, Bhargava could relate. “It would be hard to say tennis was a priority for Deepak and me in our second year,” he said. “Academics really picked up. Once you fall into that mindset of tennis not being a priority, it becomes routine.”
Not all was lost. Tee was thrilled to have senior Krishna Ravella on that first team and sophomores Bhargava and Sabada would both challenge him and eventually become the team leaders. “We always say that Krishna was one year too early (to reap the success of the program),” Sabada commented. “He gets along with everyone and can adjust to any situation.”
"Krishna really cared, but whatever he tried, didn't go through the team," said current senior Sven Kranz, who was a freshman when Ravella was captain. "The focus of the team was not always on tennis. The mentality was that it was okay to lose and then go home and go to a party."
"Ankur and Deepak were capable of being great leaders, but they were hurt from that first year," Tee recalled. "We had some confrontations that I wish hadn’t happened, but maybe that helped set the tone. They didn’t come around until those four freshmen came on campus. They had to make some changes themselves and took it seriously. We made a little progress the year before, but they started to see that we could be good and that they could be leaders. They took a lot of pride in being leaders. They are such good guys. They came to realize, ‘We can be cool and be really good guys at the same time.’"
Bhargava and Sabada Buy In
Tee admits there were some bumps in the road in the 2012-13 season, when he was the interim head coach. “I am so grateful that the administration gave me another year,” he stated. “I had expectations and they gave me time to fix things. I was concerned that the players were thinking, ‘We can get rid of this guy.’”
Some of those difficult times were part of the learning curve for Tee as a new head coach, and for Bhargava and Sabada to come to terms with this new way of doing things.
Photo: Deepak Sabada and Ankur Bhargava, who played doubles together early and late in their careers
Bhargava and Sabada conceded things did not change very quickly in their junior seasons. A combination of factors, including the highly-touted freshmen class, made things change dramatically the following season.
“It was a lot easier to buy in to the new ways in the fourth year,” Sabada stated. “We saw the talent coming in and it was our senior year. Ankur and I were both freed up by already having jobs lined up and being pretty much done with our majors. We saw the team had a much different vibe. Being captains, it was our job to lead them to live up to their potential. We had more time and wanted the program run the right way."
“Before school even started, Deepak and I talked about how this team could do a lot of damage,” Bhargava added. “Our fall ITA’s were always good, but then people would drop off the planet. We knew we could have an impact and lead this team, that we had some power and influence to move in a good direction. We wanted to get rid of the notion that hitting extra is a negative. We wanted our teammates to be proud of working harder.”
"Deepak and Ankur would say, 'Let's word hard, let's lift,' and a lot of other things that weren't followed through in my freshman year," stated Kranz, who was a sophomore at the time.
The Freshmen Arrive
Tee had focused his recruiting on student-athletes who had a passion for tennis and were good people, confident that the freshman class emulated both those qualities.
When Luke Tsai, Nick Chua, David Liu, and Peter Leung joined the team in Fall 2014, they knew the expectations were that both tennis and sportsmanship would be taken seriously and each of them embraced that culture and the leadership Bhargava and Sabada were providing.
Photo, L-R: Nick Chua, Luke Tsai, Peter Leung, David Liu
"Ankur and Deepak were amazing senior leaders and I think our team was very lucky to have them," Tsai said. "They were responsible for a huge part of our success because of how they influenced us on and off the court. Now my class tries to emulate them as leaders."
"Deepak and Ankur basically set the culture for the team," Chua commented. "Ankur had his own language that we used. They set the tone for how we interacted with one another. It made us think, 'I want to be like them, they are pretty cool.' It was about more than tennis."
"I have nothing but good things to say about Deepak and Ankur. They were so helpful in all areas," said Liu. "With tennis, these guys had been around, knew how to deal with new situations, coaches, and everything else. They are two really good guys to look up to. We would not be the same people, nor would the team have done as well, without them as senior leaders."
“Ankur and Deepak were amazing leaders, and I strive to be like them now that I am a junior on the team,” Leung added. “I really hope that I can be as good a leader as they were. It may seem like my class made the really big difference tennis-wise for our program, but it was Ankur and Deepak who cemented the difference. We noticed a big change when they weren’t there our second year.”
New Season/New Culture
Even Chua and Liu caused Tee some hardship at the team’s very first practice that season though it had nothing to do with sportsmanship. “As a coach, you hope nobody messes up on the first day, especially your best players,” Tee stated.
No such luck happened for Tee on the first day of practice with a scheduled 7 a.m. start. “I woke up and my phone said 7:40 a.m.,” Chua recalled. “I was so late and when I got there, I was kicked out of practice. It turned out Dave got there 20 minutes before me. We both ended up doing the fitness test again the next day.”
It was a crucial decision Tee was faced with. “I was pretty hard on guys the previous year if they missed practice. My returners were out for blood because of my ‘no practice, no match’ policy the year before,” he remembered. “I talked to some other coaches and decided this was a new year. It was their first transgression whereas the guys disciplined the year before had several. I told the returners, ‘Dave and Nick will pay their punishment, but we will give these guys a chance. They will do some running and they will play.”
“I think the four freshmen were the biggest reason our culture started to change from my first to my second year,” said senior Max Hawkins. “Deepak told me a story that sums up what the culture was like early in his career. There was a captain’s practice so he got the balls and texted everyone when he got to the courts. One of the players responded saying a captain’s practice meant there was no practice.”
"The exceptional thing about them is that they just love tennis," Kranz said of the foursome. "They have such an affinity for the sport and love to compete."
Hawkins believed that each of the freshmen brought something different that benefited the team’s culture, from Tsai’s love of the game to Leung’s fearlessness to Chua’s confidence to Liu’s perseverance.
“One of the main ways Luke changed the culture was his love for tennis,” he said. “That sounds silly, but he is the kind of guy who would watch tennis every night before he went to sleep. Even though he is really busy with school work, he always makes time to hit and workout, which is why he has been able to do so well despite having one of the most difficult course loads in the country.”
“One important quality of Peter that helped shape the new culture was his fearlessness,” Hawkins stated. “He does this thing every fall where he picks the hardest major and takes classes in it. Then he realizes he is a biology major, which is already hard, and stops taking the hardest classes possible. He isn’t afraid of taking difficult classes just as he is not afraid of any situation on the court. You can always hear Peter six courts away and he relishes taking over from where Ankur left off with his court presence."
Hawkins felt the previous team model of not putting in the extra work hindered talented players from improving, but that Liu showed how much hard work could pay off. “Dave is a great example of how much everyone on the team can improve,” he remarked. “He is also the best student on the team and it reflects how much he is willing to sacrifice to excel in both tennis and academics.”
“Nick brought a level of confidence to the team,” Hawkins remarked. “By winning ITA’s right off the bat, he knew everyone would be gunning for him, but the way he handled it showed he was a special freshman.”
Kranz has spent a great deal of time with Chua and helps him with strategy along the way. "I wish I could play like him but I can’t, but I do understand his game," said Kranz, who has seen Chua's work ethic from the beginning. "If he wasn’t playing great, he would watch YouTube clips and analyze what those players were doing so he could strategize for the next day."
Although many people noticed that Chua captured the 2014 USTA/ITA Division III Small College Singles Championship in his first Division III competition with the Maroons, Tee was equally pleased that Chua was awarded the James O’Hara Sargent National Sportsmanship Award for exemplifying the spirit of college tennis in the tournament.
In the fall USTA/ITA tournament, Liu and Sabada teamed up to win the regional doubles title. Chua began his doubles career with Bhargava as his partner.
Photo: David Liu and Deepak Sabada with Jay Tee after winning ITA Central Region doubles title
“I loved having Ankur on my court,” Chua said. “He was my doubles partner for half a season. He always made me feel like he had my back and taught me how to be a better doubles teammate. In junior tennis, you just hit it as hard as you can in doubles. You don’t play with the same guy day in and day out. Ankur was the template for how to be a doubles partner.”
“I think Ankur and Deepak’s on-court leadership set a good example of how to battle on the court,” Hawkins stated. “Playing on a college team is just different than playing junior tennis. Having an example of how to play hard and approach the game was something the freshmen and the rest of us needed to see.”
Tee made key midseason lineup changes when he put the two senior leaders together as the No. 1 doubles team and combined freshmen Liu and Chua at No. 3 doubles.
“On the court, it was fantastic that Ankur and Deepak played #1 doubles and ended up doing so well (the duo earned ITA All-America honors),” Liu remarked. “The best way to appreciate them is that Nick and I ask ourselves what things we can do for the freshmen now like Ankur and Deepak did for us. Even today, they are still helping us out, now with job recruiting. We are still in touch so much even as busy as they are in their careers. If I had to choose two role models, it would be them hands down.”
Bhargava and Sabada took their leadership roles very seriously, but left room for levity as well, some of which continues in friendly disagreements to this day.
Chua and Liu recall vividly one time they thought Bhargava and Sabada were being helpful and giving them inside information. “On the night before the dorms opened back up after spring break, Ankur, Deepak, and Sven (Kranz) all told us we had to get up early and be at the dorm by 8 a.m. or we would be waiting in a long line,” Chua said. “We thought we were getting this great advice,” Liu remarked. “We got ourselves up early with our bags and headed to the dorm. We got there and there was absolutely no one else there. We asked the desk lady about it and she said people usually start arriving around 2 p.m.”
The seniors kept things simple on the couple of occasions when they needed to host freshmen. "I remember coming back to school and there were all these random kids in our apartment," Bhargava laughed. "David and I stayed with them when the dorms weren’t open and we shared one couch and one blanket, sleeping opposite of one another,” Chua recalled.
“When we got back from spring break, Nick and I stayed at their apartment and they just put us on the couch without food so we just ate the Oreos I had leftover in my bag,” Liu said. Bhargava and Sabada claim to not recall such an event. Legend has it that Tsai and Leung were getting first-class treatment anytime they stayed with Hawkins, who was ordering food from Triple Crown (a restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown section) and preparing them breakfast.
“Max was an amazing host to Peter and me on our first day in Chicago,” Tsai recalled. “I have a nice memory of a foam mattress to sleep on and then Max making us eggs and bacon for breakfast.” Leung said the same, though recalls the breakfast as eggs and toast.
"Those stories are a complete fabrication and 100 percent untrue," said a disbelieving Bhargava upon hearing of the Hawkins breakfast meal for the first time. "There is absolutely no way that Max ever made them anything," Sabada added.
“Deepak and Ankur sold their souls to banking, which probably explains why they didn’t provide Nick and Dave with any food,” joked Hawkins.
Bhargava, Sabada, and the four freshmen may have incongruent recollections about the lodging and food from their season together, but all agree on the incredible experience they had together.
“They were a very good duo in terms of being senior leaders in their own way,” Tsai contributed. “Deepak was a very hard worker who led by example on the tennis court and off-court training. He was obviously a huge part of the lineup too, playing third singles and first doubles. Ankur was our emotional leader who was able to really motivate us and pump us up for the match. He was very talkative and funny, but also very caring about every individual on our team. Having both of them being our leaders, and playing first doubles together, was an amazing experience and is something my class tries to emulate as leaders.”
“I really look up to them both,” Leung said about Bhargava and Sabada. “Ankur was always funny, joking, and comfortable to be around, but when we needed him to be a leader, he would step in and get us all focused on what we needed to do. He was intense on the court, acting as a mediator between the team and coach, and kept all of us together and in line. He was also just an overall cool guy with a big heart, who really cared about the team.”
“Deepak made us feel welcome and comfortable,” Leung continued. “He demonstrated how to still win when were playing poorly. He would always say he was playing badly, yet somehow managed to win big matches. He was scrappy on the court and just a funny guy off the court. When we needed someone to ask about something, he would be there and make sure everything was okay.”