International-heavy Auburn tennis squad heads to SECs

International Men of Mystery.

Auburn’s men’s tennis team will be watching the NHL playoffs on its bus rides to and from the SEC Tournament, which begins today in Gainesville, Fla.

The Tigers don’t really have much of a choice.

They all know by now that head coach Eric Shore, a Canadian native and hockey addict, will have the remote in his hands.

That’s just one of many cultural trends that has made a name for itself in the melting pot Auburn’s team has become.

As the No. 6 seed in the SEC Tournament and No. 20 in the nation, the Tigers’ 12-man roster boasts 11 international players from six different countries.

And according to Tim Puetz, the Tigers’ No. 1 singles player who hails from Germany, it’s always been that way since he arrived at Auburn.

“Once you start getting international guys to play, I think you get connections to those countries,” Puetz said. “You get so many contacts in all of those countries that eventually you keep getting players from those countries.”

The senior will spearhead a diverse Auburn team (14-8, 6-5) in the tournament that will face No. 11 seed South Carolina (6-17, 1-10) at 8 a.m. today, with the winner advancing to face No. 3-seeded Kentucky for an 8 a.m. match Friday.

The semifinals will be held Saturday, with the final round being played out Sunday.

Auburn is riding a 6-2 mark in its last eight contests into today’s tournament, and it finished in second place in the SEC West.

Puetz is 15-3 and 7-2 in the conference playing in his second year playing the top singles slot for the Tigers, even after injuring his elbow last fall and not being able to play tennis for nearly three months.

“When I started back up in January, I was really insecure with everything,” Puetz said. “But it got better because we play so many matches, and I knew I had to hang in there and just get more matches under my belt. And eventually, it got much better.”

Puetz was recruited by a former Auburn player who hailed from Australia, and his brother, Tom, actually plays at UAB.

He said he struggled upon his arrival on the Plains, as he was used to playing on red clay courts rather than the hard courts all of the American college teams compete on.

Once he realized he didn’t have to stand as far back behind the baseline with the way the ball bounces on a hard surface, he rose to No. 1 for the Tigers.

“It’s still the same tennis court, the same size and the nets the same height, but you still have to adjust,” Puetz said. “Here, I can be much more aggressive. I can come to the net more and I can try different things. If I tried that on clay, most likely I’m going to lose.”

Shore has built a reputation for recruiting players such as Puetz, and his teams have posted a 15-19 mark in the conference tournament since he took over in the 1990-91 season.

“We’ve tried to recruit guys from the states, but there’s only certain types of guys we’re going to go after that we feel can help us,” Shore said. “And when you don’t get those guys and for whatever reason they don’t choose us … what are your options there? You either take a second-tier kid, or you go get the best kid you can.”

Alex Stamchev, a junior from Bulgaria, has been a nice complement to Puetz on the court, shifting between the No. 2 and No. 3 singles slots and playing at No. 2 doubles with Andreas Mies of Germany.

He holds a 6-4 mark in both the second and third singles spots this season, and he said he’s much more comfortable playing individually given his past in Bulgaria.

“We didn’t really focus on doubles there,” he said. “Here, it’s a lot more important. Back home, it was always singles, singles, singles. It’s different to be so pumped for doubles, because back home it was doubles means, ‘OK, we’re going to chill in practice today.’”

While the international Tigers have already become accustomed to the SEC surfaces and the number of players on their court, the Florida heat may be what haunts them the most this weekend.

If Auburn makes it to the SEC semifinals, though, it would earn a solid chance of hosting its first round NCAA Tournament match on May 13.

Shore knows if he his players were able to acclimate to the ways of Auburn so well, adapting to playing in the heat should be no problem.

“It makes for an interesting mix, that’s for sure,” Shore said of his global squad. “It’s never boring. You get a lot of different personalities. You get a lot of different cultures. And you have to kind of mesh it together.”

Though, there’s really not that much meshing to be done.

All of the Tigers are hungry to up their SEC status this weekend.

“They are tennis players, whether they are from Selma, Alabama, or from Serbia. That’s the way I look at it. I really couldn’t care less where they’re from,” Shore said.

“They’re playing for Auburn.”

AU women heavy on youth

After having to face 17 ranked opponents already this season, the Auburn women’s tennis team will now take on No. 21 Arkansas today at 2 p.m. in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

The No. 11-seeded Tigers (5-17, 1-10) have won just one match in the last month, while No. 6-seeded Razorbacks (16-8, 6-5) have swiped three of their last four SEC matches, including a 6-1 victory at Auburn on April 3.

Sophomore Paulina Schippers, who’s from Guatemala, has played the most at No. 1 singles for a Tigers squad that’s very heavy in youth this year.

Auburn has five freshmen, three sophomores, one junior and no seniors on its squad.

This weekend’s women’s tournament will be held in Knoxville, Tenn., and the winner of today’s Auburn-Arkansas match will face Georgia at 3 p.m. Friday.

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