Ben Dunbar’s fourth season at the helm of men’s tennis hasn’t exactly gotten off to an advantageous start.
After four matches, the University of New Mexico men’s tennis team is still winless, dropping each fixture on a difficult road stretch — sometimes by overwhelming margins.
Dunbar, despite his program’s woeful opening record, maintains his team is ready to start fresh at home and still holds an optimistic outlook on the remainder of the 2020 campaign.
The Daily Lobo recently spoke with him about the UNM tennis community’s history, negativity in the Athletics Department and free coffee and bagels at home matches, among other topics.
Daily Lobo: Could you describe why you think men’s tennis is an important part of the University community? What in your eyes is important or noteworthy about the program?
Ben Dunbar: I think, historically, we’ve been one of the most successful sports at UNM. Just from looking at end-of-season rankings, I think maybe 24 out of the last 26 years we’ve been ranked inside the top 75 schools in the country to finish the year. I think it’s consistently been one of the high achieving sports. We won the Mountain West regular season championship last year, and we finished the year ranked 68th in the country.
We’re coming off a strong year. We’re coming off a year where we went 7-0 in the Mountain West regular season, so we cleaned up to win the conference regular season title. So I think we’re coming off a strong year, but also I think traditionally our program competes in Mountain West Conference championships year in and year out. We’re always there or thereabouts in the conference — we’ve had a consistent history of being ranked inside the top 75 of the tennis rankings. Bear in mind, there’s 240 programs, I think, and being ranked inside the top 75 for that many years is pretty impressive.
We also offer a product that’s probably different to some other sports in that you can come to the tennis matches for free. I think that’s something that’s important for students to know: It’s completely free to come to tennis matches — it’s entertaining. Matches normally take somewhere in the region of three hours, and I think it’s a lot of fun when we tend to get people to come out. They tend to come back because of how much fun it is.
DL: How do collegiate tennis teams get ranked nationally, and how do rankings factor into the postseason?
BD: It’s through the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA). They release the top 25 for the first four or five weeks of the season, then they go to top 50, and the last ranking of the year is a top 75 ranking. Really, to make the NCAA tournament, we have to win the Mountain West or be ranked inside the top 43 teams in the country. So that’s our goal every year: to win the conference tournament.
Like I said, I think there’s somewhere in the region of 235 to 240 men’s tennis programs, and so consistently we’ve been ranked in probably the top 30% of those programs. We have a pretty strong product — we have guys from all over the world who represent New Mexico, which I think is really cool. It kind of gets into the multicultural idea of New Mexico, and we’re very accepting of people from all over the world.
The guys also work incredibly hard to kind of carry on the legacy that has come before them from previous programs and alumni who have come through here. (The idea is) to be great in the community, do a lot of community service, be present on campus and get great grades. Last semester, we got a 3.92 cumulative GPA, which is the highest GPA ever for a men’s sport at UNM. I think that’s something to know.
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I think one of the reasons why people should come to support us from main campus is we respect professors, we respect the University of New Mexico as a university and our guys love leaving here with a degree after four years. We don’t have guys that go pro early — like maybe some other sports would do — and so we have guys that are committed to coming here and getting their degrees from UNM. They do it at an excellent rate and with excellence in the classroom as well, and I’m very proud of that as a coach.
DL: There’s been a lot of tumult in the Athletics Department lately. High-profile incidents, arrests and the like have roiled the program to a certain degree over the last year. What’s your take on that?
BD: There’s an incredible amount of positivity that’s coming out of UNM Athletics as well, and sometimes that doesn’t get represented. Just from programs, there’s a lot of positivity that’s coming out of programs. I mean, I think last week we released the GPAs of all student athletes being the highest GPA ever. Like I said, our program had the highest GPA in men’s sport history at UNM. There’s a lot of other stuff going on, but I don’t know whether there’s enough credit given to that when you compare it to the main student body. I think the student-athletes are really contributing on campus, so that would be my take on that.
(Editor’s note: Student-athletes did indeed break the cumulative GPA mark during the fall semester, recording a 3.37 GPA that bested the previous record of 3.32 set in the spring of 2017.)
DL: Can you talk a little bit about what the season looks like and some of the positives you took away from the first four matches?
We play 22 matches on the year. We’ve played four. We test our guys with a strong non-conference schedule — for example, (No. 16) Tennessee. Our last seven games of the year will be against conference opponents, so that’s when we get into the conference regular season.
We try and play nationally and regionally ranked opponents. I’d say our strength of schedule is one of the highest in the Mountain West. So far we’ve played Tennessee, Louisville (receiving votes in the top 25), Middle Tennessee State and Gonzaga, who were actually ranked 75th while we started the year ranked 68th. We’re playing good, nationally ranked opponents every week, and that’s part of the plan.
The interesting thing about this team this year is we have five new guys: One who’s a transfer and four freshmen — two who arrived on campus this semester in January — so we’re kind of young. I think we’re learning from match to match; we played Tennessee, who was obviously our strongest opponent thus far, in the first match of the year, and I think we took a lot from that match even though we lost.
Likewise, with Middle Tennessee State, and then into Louisville and Gonzaga, I was pretty pleased. It’s difficult to say I was thrilled, but I think with this group, probably more than previous groups, I’ve got to be patient as a coach and understand that they’re learning week in, week out. As long as we’re making progress in the right direction, the wins are going to come.
We have some very good recruits; I would say this year’s four recruits are probably one of the best classes that we’ve had in the history of UNM men’s tennis. It’s just going to take them some time to get used to playing college tennis, to get used to the environment and the pressure that comes along with it. I’m not too worried about where we’re at. I think we’re showing progress in the right direction, we’re learning every match.
We play BYU in our home opener on Feb. 8 at 11 a.m., and we’re pretty excited about that match because I think that gives us a huge opportunity to play against a regionally ranked opponent. I think we’re going to get better from our match against Gonzaga, and I think we can definitely start off with a bang at home.
DL: Tell us more about the home opener.
BD: There’ll be free coffee and bagels, so that’s pretty cool (sharp intake of breath from the interviewer). If students want to come down on a Saturday morning and get some free coffee and some free bagels, then they’re more than welcome to join us. We tend to have food at the matches to attract a crowd, and we have a great tennis community in town of people that will support.
I think there were a couple of matches last year where we were reaching somewhere in the region of 150 fans, so the atmosphere can get pretty cool. If the main student body would like to join us too, we would love to have them as a part of, obviously, supporting our program.
Andrew Gunn is the sports editor and a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites