In high school Chris Drake '03, of Needham, Massachusetts, was one of the top-rated New England tennis players in his age group, so when he began considering colleges, he looked at Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, Minnesota, and Virginia - but not Brown, whose men's tennis team was struggling. Then he talked to Jon Choboy, who was appointed men's tennis coach at Brown during the summer of 1998, just before Drake began his senior year. "He's the one that got me interested," Drake recalls. "He told me Brown would have a great team. When I talked to him that first time I thought he was going to be a great coach."
Almost four years later Drake is a cocaptain and one of the top players on a Bears team experiencing a breakthrough year. (Tennis plays a split-season, fall-and-spring schedule.) Brown enjoyed outstanding results last fall, which led to a fistful of firsts: the ECAC championship, top ranking in Region I (which includes colleges from West Virginia to New England), and an invitation to the 2002 National Team Indoor Championships, which were held in February in Louisville, Kentucky.
This spring the men will chase two more firsts: an Ivy championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament. "To be ranked number one in the region is certainly a big accomplishment," Drake says, "and winning a championship [the ECAC] is great, but our number-one goal is to win the Ivy League." He points out that all the Ivies were at the ECACs. "We beat Princeton, 6б1, and we hadn't beaten them in a really long time, and we beat Yale, 4а0, in the final."
Brown dominated from start to finish at the ECACs, which were held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this year, opening with a 7а0 thrashing of SUNY Stony Brook and a 6б1 victory over Cornell before taking out Princeton and Yale
for the title. The Bears won thirty of the thirty-three matches they played, including twenty-two of twenty-four in singles and eleven of twelve in doubles. Drake, Jamie Cerretani '04, Adil Shamasdin '05, and Nick Goldberg '05 were 4а0 in both singles and doubles, while cocaptain Nick Malone '02 was 3а0 in singles and 3б1 in doubles. Choboy was not expecting the same domination at the National Team Indoors, but the Bears surprised a lot of fans by staying close throughout their match against Georgia, the top-ranked team in the nation.
Although the Bulldogs finally tamed the Bears, 4б1, Brown also looked strong against seventh-ranked Pepperdine and eleventh-ranked UC Berkeley, losing by a 4в2 score to Pepperdine and 4в2 to Berkeley. "Our program is not at the stage yet where we can go out and win a national tournament," Choboy said before the event. Yet the Bears demonstrated that Ivy League tennis in general and Brown tennis in particular can now fight it out on the court with anyone.
Choboy's success as coach has been swift and significant. Less than four years ago he inherited a team that had lost twelve straight Ivy League matches and dropped twenty-two of its last twenty-four competitions against Ivy schools. "We were a team that schools could play their seven, eight, and nine guys against and pencil in a victory," he recalls. Choboy brought to campus two years of experience as an assistant coach at highly ranked University of Florida (thirty-seventh nationally this year) and three years of head-coach seasoning at Charleston Southern, where he was named Big South Conference Coach of the Year in 1995 and in 1996, when he led the school to its first-ever conference title. "The biggest draw in coming to Brown was to measure Brown by the top of the Ivy League," he says. "I just felt Brown was capable of doing so much more."
Choboy's first challenge was to get his players to buy into his confidence and ambition. "There's always been a pecking order in the Ivy League," he says, and Brown was never near the top. "There was definitely ability on our team, but the biggest problem was kids' buying into the pecking order. We pretty much pounded it into their heads from the day we began practice: if anyone didn't believe we could beat anyone in the Ivy League, he was free to leave right then."
The team has been on an upward swing ever since, going from two Ivy wins over 1997 and 1998 to ten during Choboy's first three seasons. His 1999 squad posted a 4г3 win over Harvard, which was then ranked twenty-fifth; it was the Bears' first victory over the Crimson since the mid-1980s. "We could be well conditioned and well trained right away," Choboy says of his plan back then. "Then we could infuse the talent and upgrade the schedule. If you want to get the top kids, you've got to play a top schedule."
Choboy's recruiting prowess can be seen in his success at convincing such top-ranked New England high school players as Drake, Ben Brier '04, and Jamie Cerretani (who was Ivy League and Region I rookie of the year in 2001) to enroll at Brown. Similarly, Nick Goldberg, who's from Albuquerque, finished his junior career as the top-ranked singles player in the Southwest and the eighteenth-best player overall in the country. Adil Shamasdin was the second-ranked junior player in Ontario, the fifth-ranked singles player there, and the number-one doubles player overall. "The only [Ivy League] school we recruit against now is Harvard," Choboy says. And the players are being put to the challenge: the Bears' spring schedule includes such powerhouses as Florida, South Florida, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Virginia, Tulane, and Fresno State. Overall this season, Brown will play nine teams ranked in the top fifty in the country, and fourteen of its twenty opponents are ranked in the top seventy-five.
The Bears' Intercollegiate Tennis Association preseason ranking was fifty-fifth, and the team would like to climb to at least forty-fifth by the end of the spring. Such a finish would earn them an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament, in the event that they fail to earn the automatic entry granted the Ivy champions. Naturally no one on the team thinks the at-large option will be needed. "This is my strongest team," says Choboy. "We have depth. All my players - every one of them - are very confident in what we can do. Nick Malone told me this was the first time every single person thinks we're the best team in the Ivy League."
Now they need to prove it.