By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Christmas in Paris? Not exactly. For UVa women’s tennis coach Mark Guilbeau, though, the experience was still unforgettable.
Guilbeau, who’s in his sixth year at UVa, was one of the two coaches on the team that represented the United States in the fifth annual Master’U BNP Paribas, a tournament for college players from around the world.
The eight-team tourney was held Dec. 9 to 12 in Rouen, France. The United States, which entered as the defending champion, finished second in a field that also included Ireland, Germany, Great Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland and China.
Guilbeau hadn’t been to France in about 20 years, so “essentially it was really the first time,” he said.
The U.S. team comprised three women’s players (Notre Dame’s Kristy Frilling, Southern California’s Maria Sanchez and Florida’s Allie Will) and three men’s players (Florida’s Sekou Bangoura, Duke’s Reid Carleton and Texas A&M’s Austin Krajicek). The other U.S. coach was Greg Patton, who directs the men’s program at Boise State.
The team met Dec. 6 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. From JFK, the Americans flew directly to Paris, where a driver picked them and drove them to Rouen, a little more than two hours away.
As the plane was landing in Paris, Guilbeau said, “the heaviest snow they’ve had in probably 50 years started falling, so we just got out of there literally about four or five hours before they closed the airport down. Other teams were delayed. We were just really lucky.”
The team arrived in Rouen on the afternoon of Dec. 7. A practice soon followed, as the Americans tried “to get used to the facility and the courts,” Guilbeau said.
“We really didn’t do a whole lot outside of that city. We didn’t get to tour Paris, but we got to bond and spend a lot of time doing different things with the team.”
The United States opened the tournament by beating the spirited but overmatched team from Ireland. In their 7-0 victory, the Americans swept the two women’s singles matches, the two men’s singles matches, the women’s doubles match, the men’s doubles match and the mixed doubles match.
That was the format in every round. In the semifinals, the U.S. beat Germany 4-2, setting up a rematch of the 2009 final. A year earlier, the United States had fought back from a 3-1 deficit to beat France 4-3 for the title. This time the French dominated, taking the gold medal with a 5-1 victory.
Guilbeau hopes to be part of the team that tries to avenge that loss. He has spoken to the United States Tennis Association about coaching on the U.S. team in 2011, he said, and it “sounds like next year is a very good opportunity, a very good possibility.”
The experience he gained in France will help him in Charlottesville, Guilbeau believes.
“No doubt,” he said. “You’re not going to learn anything necessarily brand-new about tennis, but Greg Patton, he’s been around for a long, long time. This is a coach that’s worked in the USTA with all the top professional players at a developmental stage, he’s coached Boise State for a number of years and has done very well. His strength, I think, lies in team-building and team-bonding, which was a real important part of this trip. You’re only with these players for seven or eight days, and you’ve got to create a bond.”
He needed no introduction to Frilling. When she was in middle school, Frilling had a friend who played on the women’s team at Kentucky, where Guilbeau was then coach. Frilling would visit Lexington and work out with the UK players.
Guilbeau’s résumé also includes a stint as the head coach of the powerful boys team at Athens Academy in Georgia. At the college level, though, he had never coached male players.
“That was awesome,” Guilbeau said of working with Bangoura, Carleton and Krajicek in France. “It’s a much faster game. In some ways don’t know that the coaching is as thought-out, because it’s so fast. It’s much more of a physical deal. On the women’s side, one thing that I’ve always loved is, it’s not real slow, but it’s a little slower game, and that’s a positive in terms of coaching. You can really manipulate and figure out how the points are being developed and work on strengths and weaknesses even more. So it was great from all sides. Working with the kids hands-on, hitting some balls with them, getting to experience everything first-hand was just great.”
UVa athletics administrators, including Craig Littlepage, Jon Oliver and Valerie Richardson, supported Guilbeau’s participation in the tournament.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And this is a perfect time in regards to that, because we’re not allowed to even work with our kids during final exams. So other than staying in touch with them by e-mail and having some pre-trip meetings with our team, it was a great time to be away.”
Guilbeau said he would love to see UVa players picked for the U.S. team. Some of men’s coach Brian Boland’s players were talented enough to have participated this year, Guilbeau said, but had other commitments.
The UVa men have become perennial NCAA title contenders under Boland. The women’s team is not at that level, but Guilbeau sees progress in his program. The Cavaliers finished 15-10 last season after losing in the NCAA tournament’s second round for the second straight year, and the team returned virtually intact.
Among those back are Erin Vierra, Lindsey Hardenbergh, Emily Fraser and Maria Fuccillo.
“We’re probably in the best place we’ve been, for sure, in the first five years of this program, with [assistant Troy Porco] and myself coaching it,” Guilbeau said. “It’s a team sport, but you have to accomplish things individually to get there. I think we’ll have five girls ranked probably in the top 125 in the national individual rankings, which is really, really good. That’s been kind of a long time coming.”