Considered North Carolina’s top-ranked player as a senior in high school, Austin Ansari was rated as high as No. 15 in the country in his class, and pretty much had his pick of offers from high-level collegiate tennis programs.
Fortunately for Coach Chuck McCuen, Ansari chose Clemson, and has had an influence as a freshman on the Tigers’ 9-1 start by going undefeated while playing at the No. 6 singles position, and No. 2 doubles - including the clinching victory in Clemson's upset of No. 21 Auburn on Friday.
“Clemson was not too far from home, and not too close,” said Ansari, a Greensboro native and former top-ten juniors player with national tournament experience. “I was looking at a lot of ACC schools in North Carolina, but there was always some little thing that I wouldn’t like, and Clemson seemed to fit with everything that I wanted. We’re off to a great start, and though I know that in past seasons we haven’t been this good, I think that this season will be different.”
From a recruiting standpoint, Ansari answered exactly the priorities of McCuen’s geographical blueprint, and hasn’t actually shocked anyone by excelling so soon.
“My philosophy for recruiting is always the state first, the southeast second, the national arena, and then the internationals,” said McCuen. “We have that great mix. (sophomore) Hunter Harrington is from Spartanburg, SC, and Austin is from Greensboro. And those are the guys that are making a difference from a very local standpoint.
“I don’t know if I would say that Austin’s exceeded our expectations. I think that we recruited that, and saw that in him. That was the expectation for us, and it’s nice to see him executing that at such an early stage. He’s undefeated at this point, and has been a real catalyst for us by winning those dependable points against some of these better teams we’ve played, so far. I can see him very quickly vying for the top-third of the lineup.”
For now, Ansari feels that he’s benefitted from playing at a less prestigious and intensive singles flight, though he also recognizes his value to his teammates from that position.
“The coaching has helped me a lot, and I think I’ve gotten a lot better just playing with good players every day,” said Ansari. “So I’m practicing at a high-level, and then playing matches at six, which isn’t as high a level.
“But getting the point at six really helps the team, I think, because I’ve been the first one off every single time. Seeing 2-0 on the scoreboard helps my teammates at other flights to push-through.”
McCuen describes Ansari as an all-court player, which is something of a divergence in a collegiate game more heavily populated with baseliners.
“He’s incredibly consistent, and his movement is very solid,” said McCuen. “He’s a great all-court-player, and that’s rare these days, because you usually have a super-aggressive player, or else you have a baseliner. The majority of collegiate players are aggressive baseliners that stay back and hit a lot of balls.
“Austin’s one of those rare players of his generation of players, that’s able to come in to the net and can play all-court. He senses the opportunity, and comes to the net really well. He finds weaknesses in other people’s games quickly, and he’s really good at exploiting those.”
Ansari concurs that he’s comfortable at the net, which is an advantage in doubles where he’s been successfully partnered with senior Ayrton Wibowo. Playing at No. 2, they recently clinched the doubles-point in the Tigers’ 4-0 blanking of 35th-ranked Louisville.
“I can play defense really well, and I’d say that I attack pretty well,” said Ansari. “I like my backhand a lot, and people say that they don’t like to play it to my forehand, because I can hit winners off my forehand. But my backhand’s steadier. Also, I like to serve-and-volley, and mix it up a little bit. I like coming to the net, and that helps in doubles.”
Aside from the evident variety of his game, Ansari has some other important resources at his disposal. In fact, McCuen suggests that some of these attributes are innate and can’t be assessed in a sense that’s strictly technical.
“I think he has what I call that ‘It’ factor, which is about intangible things,” said McCuen. “It’s poise under pressure, it’s work-ethic, it’s sensing when to strike, and he does all that incredibly well.”