With the new year underway, the return of a spring sport has finally arrived. Last year was definitely one to forget as COVID-19 hit and canceled the play of spring sports, ending athletes' seasons. However, with new guidelines and protocols to follow, the LMU men's tennis team is excited and ready to compete again.
While uncertainty still hangs in the air, paired with the reality that tomorrow is not guaranteed, head coach Tom Lloyd expressed the joy of being able to get out on the court again.
“I think it goes for all of us. We are just happy to play again and we were able to do that,” Lloyd said. “As tennis players and coaches, that gives us a bit of hope and sense of normalcy that we really missed.”
As the team was supposed to compete in tournament-level play this weekend with the likes of USC, UCLA and Pepperdine, the team only got the chance to play their first match Friday. Come Saturday and Sunday the matches were canceled due to internal precautions and COVID-19-related things concerning the other teams.
In light of these setbacks, tennis has been regarded as one of the safer sports to play during the COVID-19 era because of its spacing in an outside environment and individualistic nature.
Players are generally 60 feet away from their opponent, and once it was approved that COVID-19 can't be transferred on a tennis ball surface, easy adjustments to shaking hands at the end and switching sides during the match allowed for the sport to be played safely.
With that in mind, Lloyd admitted the true challenge during this time is staying on top of the guys every day.
“Definitely the biggest concern is what the guys are doing off the court,” Lloyd said. “Getting gas, going to the grocery store, who they are living with and where their roommates have been. That's where it gets tricky and that's what we saw this weekend with other teams having to go back and do their [COVID-19] tracing, resulting in the match getting shut down.”
Halfway through last season, that's exactly what happened to the team as they were forced to drive back home after getting news that the pandemic would shut down the rest of their remaining games. Like most athletes, the guys were disappointed and sad to learn they wouldn't have the chance to achieve big things, but they used it as fuel to prepare them for the opportunity that awaits them now.
“I made all the guys write letters about what they felt during that time,” Lloyd said. “I haven't returned the letters to them yet, but when I feel it's the right opportunity I will give them back and they will remember the tough times they endured to get here and how anything hard they experience now is nothing compared to what they have gone through in the past."
Aside from all the COVID-19 distractions, the team is focused on their goals and success this season. Having started the year with 15 guys, they are down to 10 now, which has allowed the coaches to work more with each player individually and help them reach their goals.
Like any year, the goal is to compete for the WCC Championship, but it's a different kind of year. A lot of the team's goals are to stay healthy and, more importantly, to be resilient and keep things in perspective, something that Lloyd continues to preach day in and day out.
“If we wake up each day and have the opportunity to compete that is a success,” Lloyd said. “It's not about what's going on a week from now, two weeks from now, it's about the very next day and that's our practice tomorrow at 9 a.m. — that's what we focus on.”
There is no doubt that health remains at the forefront of this year's season, but culture has always been a big part of LMU's tennis program, and the coaching staff will rely on the veteran players to help in ways that will pay huge dividends down the road.
One of those players is Diego Nava, who has been there for all four years at LMU. Nava has developed tremendously over his college career and has taken the strides to become a leader and top-level athlete within the program.
Nava had the pleasure of being voted as team captain by his teammates this season, and he knows that with that title comes being dependable and someone that the younger players can learn from.
“As a senior, I just want to show them that if you put in the hard work and focus that will show in the matches,” Nava said. “When you compete it gives you another level of confidence that you probably didn't know you could reach. I've always been a strong believer in hard work and when I'm done I hope the freshman can take that away and apply it to themselves.”
Though last season the team was doing middle-of-the-road when the pandemic shut things down, Nava recalled how the team was starting to reach its peak and its full potential, something that they look to carry into the new year.
“We know our potential is very high and we can achieve great things,” Nava said. “My teammates and I have always been of the mindset that we just want to play the best that we can and live with the result. I feel like if you play the game without having expectations of winning, winning itself becomes a lot easier. We all hold ourselves to a high standard and we know that we are capable of doing really well this year.”
With a lot of time off and uncertainty still as the season arrives, Nava has had the chance to look back at his time at LMU and reminisce on some of his best days as a college athlete. One thing that has remained the same for the senior is his desire to leave on a positive note and to be remembered by his peers.
“I just want to be remembered as a player that worked hard, stayed focused and just enjoyed what he did,” Nava said. “A person that gave to his teammates and fellow athletes the joyfulness of being around Diego. I just wanted people to be comfortable and enjoy who I was, looking at my competitiveness, hard work and determination in tennis and in school. At the end of the day it wasn't about the result but the process I took and the journey of my college experience.”