How many times have you heard a Big 12 competitor say, "It's a tough conference. There are some hard teams, so we can't just focus on Baylor." If you're a Bear fan, probably only in your dreams.
And yet, those were the words spoken by Texas A&M tennis star Lester Cook early in this year's season. Hand it to Cook; he knew which team to watch.
With senior Matias Marin's ace ending the match, the Bears trounced fourth-seeded UCLA May 25 in Tulsa, Okla., to win Baylor's first NCAA national championship, 4-0. Not only was it a shutout, it was one of the shortest championship matches in NCAA history (two minutes short of two hours), which spans 28 years of tennis team championships.
"We played our best match of the year," said the Bears' Big 12 Coach of the Year Matt Knoll. "We built toward this all season. This is the top of the pyramid for us over the course of the season."
Not only did Knoll's Bears build toward this all year, but over the last four years. During that time, the Baylor's men's tennis team has been the one to beat, and with good reason - the Bears have dominated the sport.
This year, the team once again won the Big 12 championship and the Big 12 tournament. That's three conference championships and three tournaments in a row without losing a single match to another Big 12 opponent. That has never been done before in any Baylor sport.
Men's tennis has won four titles in the last five seasons. The team has been undefeated at the Baylor Tennis Center since late 2002 and has not been ranked lower than No. 7 nationally in the past two seasons.
But it hasn't always been so. Calling past men's programs the doormat of collegiate tennis is being kind. From 1980 to 1996, the team won only 12 matches against other Southwest Conference teams, and from 1989 to 1996, the Bears had only one SWC win.
The success of men's tennis can be traced directly to the hiring of Knoll as coach in 1996. During his first season, the Bears finished eighth in the Big 12, but the next year, they tied for second. The team has never finished below second since 1998.
In recognition of his team's success, Knoll was named Big 12 Coach of the Year in 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004, and was named College Coach of the Year by the U.S. Professional Tennis Association in 2002.
"I came to Baylor because I believed in the potential of the University to field a great tennis program," said Knoll, who also serves as director of tennis operations. "The combination of being a good, private institution, of being in a good climate for tennis and of being in a good conference sold me. But maybe more of a factor was [that] I believed in people like Dr. Sloan [Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr.] and Tom Stanton [former athletic director], who told me they would make tennis a priority and make us nationally competitive."
The coach points to two significant events in building the men's program. In 1998, the team won its match against that Baylor nemesis, the Texas Longhorns, which historically has a strong program. The next year, Baylor beat Stanford in the round of 16 at the NCAA national tournament. "Stanford was the three-time defending national champion. That [win] opened people's eyes that we were a legitimate tennis program," he said.
So how did Knoll build a top-notch program in such a short time? For one thing, he's a relentless recruiter who scoured the earth to find top tennis players. He has recruited in Australia, Argentina, Hungary, South Africa, Germany, Scotland, Poland and more. "When I came here, because of what I inherited, we were forced to recruit the whole universe. We were on every kid who was walking or breathing in every country on the planet," he said.
It takes more than being a good tennis player and a talented athlete to build a high-caliber program, though. Knoll makes sure his players know that excellence in all areas is expected. "I am very passionate about what we are doing here and about creating a culture where the normal course of business includes a pursuit of excellence on all fronts," he said. "We have a routine that demands excellence, whether it is in athletics or academics. We have passed on a lot of guys who didn't fit into what we are trying to do. I could make a huge list of guys who are more talented than the players we have now, but I could tell they weren't committed to academics. Those guys aren't a good fit for us."
All-American Benjamin Becker, a junior from Germany, can give many reasons why Knoll's team is one of the best in the country. "Our coach makes sure that we're the fittest guys out there on the court," said the two-time Academic All Big 12 player. "He also does a very good job at looking at my strokes and telling me what he sees and giving advice. Sometimes that can make a difference in the match."
This year, Knoll's team took its place in Baylor history before a crowd of 2,500 -- about 2,000 of whom were Baylor fans. Junior Benedikt Dorsch was named the tournament's most outstanding performer, and he was joined on the all-tournament team by Becker and senior Reiner Neurohr. Other all-tournament team members were Dorsch and freshman Matija Zgaga (doubles) and sophomore Ivor Lovrak and Neurohr (doubles).