Explaining Clemson’s strong start to the season at 8-1, and an access of confidence that’s been visible on the court, men’s tennis coach Chuck McCuen credits the intentional emphasis of “process over product.”
By which he means stressing consistency and improvement from day-to-day and match-to-match, as distinct from focusing less concretely and too early on the end-goals of success.
“The season is going really well,” said McCuen. “It’s funny, but (assistant) Coach (John) Boetsch and I made a decision – and that was actually during the summer - that we were going to have a change of direction in our coaching. The coaching change was going to deal with more individual workouts, and more individualized practices within our training sessions. We were focusing on really being consistent as far as stressing the process over the product, and that was a big step for us.
“Of course, as coaches, we realize the importance of rankings, the position in the ACC, and the ultimate goal of winning championships. But sometimes I think that can sort of dilute the process. And this year, we really have been very consistent at trying to get the team a little bit better each and every day, and I think that’s reflective of the way that we’re playing today.”
The Tigers’ solid series of performances in the pre-ACC phase of the schedule include a 5-2 road-win over previously unbeaten Wisconsin, and victories at home (5-2, and 4-0, respectively) over 45th-ranked Alabama and 35th-ranked Louisville.
“We’re proud of that,” said McCuen. “The schedule was designed on purpose to go ahead and provide some challenges. We have a mature team, and we have four seniors on the team this year. We also have a deep team, and a very committed team. So John and I decided that this year we were going to play a lot of challenging matches, especially at the beginning.
“To date, I think we’ve played six ranked teams out of the nine matches that we’ve played. And, again, that’s all by design. We’ve tried to travel and we’ve tried to put the team in tough situations early, and they’ve just responded really well.”
Ranked 57th nationally prior to the wins over Alabama and Louisville, the Tigers made only a modest jump in the rankings, and McCuen says that’s a reduced priority for a team more concerned with matters within its own control.
“We’re not worried about that at all,” he said. “I told the guys just this morning before the practice that one of our goals this year was not to chase the rankings, and that if we just continue to do what we’re doing, and that if we continue to get better each and every day and each and every match, and continue to win, that the rankings will take care of themselves. Eventually, where we deserve to be will catch up with our performance.”
Last year, the Tigers often fought their way into contention in close matches, but would falter at the end. So far, the difference that McCuen sees in his team this season can be condensed to a fairly simple calculus.
“I think there are three things that are making the difference,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. It’s perseverance, it’s a belief, and it’s hard work. I really think it comes down to those three things. Last year we had all those heartbreaking 4-3 matches, while we were starting to learn how to persevere. I’m not sure we absolutely believed that we could win those matches, even when we were in those matches, and we hoped we could win them.
“This year there’s a strong belief, which coincides with confidence when matches get close, that we’re going to win those matches.”
And what goes hand-in-hand with that confidence is the aforementioned maturity factor, and the advantages of having four seniors in the lineup.
“I think that’s paramount,” said McCuen. “I can’t speak highly enough of Yannick Maden. He’s one of our co-captains, and is one of our academic scholars, and he’s one of the hardest workers, and one of the most talented guys on our team. When you put that great balance together, that equates to great leadership.
“That’s followed by Zach Rigsby, Gerardo Meza, and Ayrton Wibowo. All of those guys have come together and formed a bond that’s almost like a shield around the team, and that’s really been a neat thing to see.”