Road to Orlando: Texas women, men eye title sweep at 2023 NCAA Championships
In the buildup to the 2023 NCAA Championships, set to be held at the USTA National Campus in Orlando from May 11-27, USTA.com will feature some of the nation's top teams from Divisions I, II and III in this 'Road to Orlando' series. In this installment, we spotlight the women's and men's tennis programs from the University of Texas. The Longhorn women are two-time defending DI champions, while the men won the 2019 NCAA title at the National Campus.
When the USTA National Campus hosted the NCAA Division I Championships for the first time in 2019, the Texas men made history of their own by claiming their first national title. Two years later, with the tournament back at the home of American tennis in Orlando, the women's program claimed its first title since 1995 before repeating as champs last season.
While plenty of Longhorns fans packed the stands in Lake Nona for both Texas teams, their biggest supporters might be each other.
"The women's team and the men's team here at Texas, maybe unlike some other schools—I'm not really sure how it goes—but we're pretty close," said junior Elliot Spizzirri, the ITA's top-ranked men's player. "We're good friends."
Women's head coach Howard Joffe shared similar sentiments about the men's program, noting that such a dynamic is not a given at all schools, with programs sometimes competing for resources.
"The relationship with the coaches and coaching staffs is fantastic," he told USTA.com. "We're great friends, and the relationship with the players is also that way. They hang out and the programs are really aligned and close. And so it definitely does feel like the last few years has been a golden era for Texas tennis on the men's and on the women's side."
Asked about the "give and take" between the two programs, which have combined to win three national titles in the past four editions of the NCAAs, Spizzirri's answer gave insight into the championship mentality that permeates the Texas athletic department.
"Hopefully we can both take," he said with a laugh. "That hasn't happened yet. We're working for that moment."
A title sweep is a real possibility this spring, as both programs enter the NCAA tournament behind strong seasons. The men top the ITA rankings and the women are fresh off their third straight Big 12 tournament title as they begin their quest for an NCAA three-peat.
New team, same goal for Texas women: 'Nothing is off the table'
A dramatic 4-3 win against Pepperdine secured the Longhorn women the first of their back-to-back national crowns at the USTA National Campus in 2021, before they repeated last year in Illinois. In both cases, coach Joffe's team was led by Peyton Stearns, who is now inside the Top 75 on the WTA Tour after a stellar start to her professional career.
Playing without Stearns and last year's No. 2 singles player Kylie Collins, who transferred to LSU, Texas produced a 21-4 season in the spring of 2023, finishing inside the ITA's Top 10 after winning a third straight Big 12 tournament title.
While the goal all year has been another NCAA title, junior Charlotte Chavatipon—who earned 15 singles wins in dual matches this season—says the team is not thinking about the potential three-peat.
“Every year it's a new team," she explained. "So there's really no three-peat or a repeat for every single team. Maybe just for the program and school itself."
But one thing the California native is hoping to repeat is the experience of competing at the National Campus, where she helped lead the Longhorns to the 2021 title.
"I actually love playing in Orlando," said the applied movement science major. "Believe it or not, I don't think I've ever—knock on wood—played bad over there. Whenever I'm losing confidence, I kind of remember matches that I played in Orlando, and I've played really good over there."
In order to get back to Lake Nona as a team, the Longhorns must reach the NCAA quarterfinals.
"I'm pretty excited. I really like playing over there, and I think my team will enjoy playing and enjoy that experience," Chavatipon said of a potential return to the Central Florida tournament site. "I kind of wish I can give them what I saw in freshman year and give them that experience. Like, 'Hey guys, let's do this!'
"It was so fun for me. I just like the way everything is set up. It was by far one of the best tournaments ever ran, especially with all that [COVID-related] chaos going on."
Coach Joffe is aligned with his No. 2 singles player in his affinity for the National Campus and his view of a potential three-peat.
"I can't ever remember a better atmosphere and a better place than the USTA National Campus for hosting the NCAAs," he said of the Orlando setting. "It was really a monumental match that we played two years ago with Pepperdine, which was like a four-hour match, 7-5 in the third set [in the deciding match]. So the memories and all my associations with it are fantastic."
While happy to reminisce about that magical run, he said the potential three-peat was not part of his messaging to the team this season.
"It's always competing. It's always a call to the players to get in touch with and play from their most resourced place," he said of his key talking points throughout the season. "That's really what the message always is."
Despite a season filled with it's fair share of disappointments, many of them injury-related, Joffe is pleased with the way his team has come together as a cohesive unit for the postseason charge.
"I do think that we at least have a team that is mounting a possibility of a [title] defense for sure," he said. "And so the hope would be that we continue to grow here in the last few weeks and perform very well. And I don't think anything's off the table.
He later added: "I know it's very late in the season, it's tournament time, but this team is still growing and figuring some things out. And that's why I think there's been an uptick a little bit in performance and why I am hopeful and enthusiastic about the postseason."
Top-ranked Texas men reaping rewards for tough schedule: 'Every match was a complete battle'
The Texas men's team has already played for three trophies this season, facing in-state rivals Texas Christian University in the decisive match in each occasion. After getting shut out by the Horned Frogs in the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, Texas got its revenge with a 5-2 win in the Big 12 season finale, which served as a de facto shootout for the regular-season crown as both teams entered undefeated in conference play.
But the Longhorns enter the NCAA tournament on the heels of a rare defeat after a 4-1 loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament final—a result that Spizzirri says will only serve to motivate the team for its final push at the NCAAs.
"We built up so much confidence over the season that to lose against TCU is not a bad loss by any means, obviously, because they're one of the top teams," he reflected. So it sucks, but it's also kind of just lights the fire in your belly to keep going and to start strong at the NCAA tournament."
Texas has spent much of its season playing against the nation's top teams, having contested just two spring matches against unranked opponents. They have competed against Top 10 teams on nine occasions, more than a third of their 25 matches, but still excelled with a 22-3 record.
"Obviously looking at our record, anyone can say it's been a great season, we've done really well," Spizzirri said. But the .880 winning percentage only tells part of the story.
"Coach [Bruce Berque] has said to us many times, and it's something that he prides himself on: We play one of the hardest schedules in the country, and he says it's the hardest schedule he's played in his 30 years in coaching. And it's definitely one of the hardest schedules I've ever seen.
"So to have the record that we have right now, given our schedule, playing against so many Top 25 teams... We really did not have a single match this year that was by any means a breeze. Every match was a complete battle and it brought it's challenges. So to come through so many of those matches where we were really close to it going the other way, and to have every every guy on the team commit to staying gritty and resilient and come out on top in all those scenarios is pretty special."
Spizzirri, a business major, has led his team from the No. 1 position all year in a resurgent season following summer surgery on his left wrist. The Greenwich, Conn., native played with a slice backhand for almost the entirety of the spring 2022 season as he struggled with the injury and into the fall while he rehabbed from the operation.
The 21-year-old competed in US Open qualifying in 2021 and in the doubles main draw (with two-time NCAA doubles champ Tyler Zink), but has not played any pro events since that season due to his injury.
Now back at full health, he is relishing the opportunity to lead his team at the NCAAs. Following his college career, which he could extend through his senior year, Spizzirri intends to take his game onto the professional level.
For Spizzirri and all of his Texas teammates—as well as the Longhorn women—the NCAA postseason is an opportunity to live life as if they were pros already. With classes and finals finished for the spring semester, the student-athletes in both programs are free to be full-time tennis players as they prepare to compete for the biggest trophies on offer in the college game.