Cajun Classic provides teams with experience _lowres

Advocate file photo by BRAD KEMP UL-Lafayette's Jake Wynan serves during his match against Kentucky's William Bushamuka during last year's Cajun Tennis Classic at Cajun Courts in Lafayette.

A tournament like the Cajun Tennis Classic, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday at Louisiana-Lafayette’s Cajun Courts, may seem far removed from the college tennis season next spring.

Even further away from the season-ending NCAA tournament. But looks can be deceiving.

“We want to give our guys a lot of time to work and get stronger, and also to compete,” Georgia coach Manuel Diaz said. “We have them play in five events in the fall. That’s especially helpful for the younger players.”

Georgia, an NCAA quarterfinalist which finished No. 8 in ITA national rankings last spring, features senior Nick Wood, sophomore Paul Oosterbaan and freshmen Walker Duncan and Emil Reinberg for the Classic.

UGA’s Wayne Montgomery, who won last year’s Classic as a freshman, is back in class after earlier fall action at the Oracle event in Malibu.

“Playing tournaments in the fall gives our players exposure to the college game,” Diaz said. “Wayne was playing with a lot of confidence last fall. He was coming off the Southern Intercollegiates and also won here.

“Certainly those two events were huge for him. He found out he was among the best in college tennis.”

It goes beyond the court, though.

“A lot of players come in having had online schooling,” Diaz said. “Going to class is something some of them have never done. Some need to get accustomed to getting back in the classroom. Like the other schools here this weekend, we want them to compete in the classroom, too.

“They learn a lot about time management in the fall. There’s early morning conditioning, class, meals, practice, then studies with tutors and mentors. There’s not a whole lot of (extra) time. Then with travel, you have to deal with classes missed.

“After playing in the fall, they’re a lot more comfortable in the spring.”

Georgia is one of seven elite programs joining host UL-Lafayette this weekend, along with two-time NCAA finalist Oklahoma (No. 2 ITA), No. 4 TCU, No. 7 Southern Cal, No. 17 Ole Miss, No. 29 Oklahoma State and No. 30 LSU, which features Lafayette’s Jordan Daigle.

Each school brings four players to the event, which was revived in 2014. Two rounds of singles will be played Thursday, as well as doubles openers, with finals set for Sunday.

Diaz likes the foursome he has on hand.

“Nick had a tremendous year for us, playing mostly No. 5 and some No. 4,” Diaz said. “He is one of our anchors, and this year will try to push up the line. Paul had a tremendous freshman year. He’s a big kid (6-foot-7) with big potential who made it to the semifinals of the Intercollegiates (this fall) and lost 6 in the third set.

“Then we have our two freshmen, Walker and Emil, who work hard and have a lot of potential. This is their first road trip. It will be a good experience for them.”

Diaz is familiar with the personnel at Southeastern Conference rivals LSU and Ole Miss. But creative scheduling also means that some other opponents this weekend are not as unfamiliar as one might think.

“For three years now, we’ve had the SEC-Pac 12 Showdown,” Diaz said. “This year it will be Georgia and Florida against USC and UCLA on UCLA’s campus. There’s also a chance we’ll see them at the National Indoors.

“We also played Oklahoma in the MLK Classic last January at Georgia Tech, so we do get the chance to measure ourselves.”

USC won the NCAA in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 under coach Peter Smith, while coach John Roddick’s OU Sooners lost in the final to USC in 2014 and to Virginia last spring, so there is plenty of quality to measure by this weekend.

Diaz, 627-135 in his 28th year at the helm of Georgia, won NCAA crowns in 1999, 2001, 2007 and 2008, and shows no signs of slowing down.

“I feel great,” he said. “I’m healthy, I have energy and passion, and I’m still learning. When you get to the point where you’re not learning, then it’s time to go.”