Georgia Gwinnett College's Maria Genovese prepares to hit a forehand during a recent training session at the Grizzlies' tennis facility.

With the focus of college tennis on the spring season and the COVID-19 pandemic still an issue, the fall season is a shell of its former self.

Because of travel concerns amid the pandemic, most teams’ fall schedule features matches against nearby opponents that aren’t required to make overnight stays. That is the case for the powerhouse Georgia Gwinnett College teams, who compete at home this week in the ITA South Regional against players from Tennessee Wesleyan, Brenau, Reinhardt and Point.

“With tennis, the good thing is you can social distance and play, unlike many other sports,” said GGC coach Chase Hodges, who has led the Grizzlies to 11 NAIA national team titles over the last six seasons. “We’re still having a fall season, however it’s more limited in terms of playing less events. I’m just happy we’re playing. It is different. But the fact we’re getting back on the court and competing is a positive.”

The desire to compete is stronger after the coronavirus wiped out the spring season, and ended the national championship hopes of both the GGC teams. The men’s team was after its seventh straight national championship in 2020, while the women’s team was on a streak of four straight national titles and five in a six-year span. The men’s team takes a dual-match winning streak of 123 matches into next season.

“It was tough to be cut in March,” Hodges said. “Both teams were undefeated. We felt like we were gearing up to win another national title on both sides. We felt good about where we were. Obviously, it was disappointing and the players were really disappointed to see the season cut short. But it was out of our control and there was really nothing we could do. So it was a mind shift to finishing the semester strong for all our players and making sure they were as safe as humanly possible getting back to their home countries and hometowns.”

Many of those GGC players have remained home since the quarantine during the spring semester. They are enrolled in online classes this fall with plans to return to campus for the team season in the spring — and another national championship chase.

A small group of Grizzlies are on campus for the fall semester, giving them the chance to compete this weekend for ITA regional crowns.

Among those are three returning players from the men’s team — Sergio Valinotti from Paraguay, Federico Bonacia from Italy and Valentino Caratini from Argentina. Caratini already has a national title in doubles to his credit, while Bonacia is one of the singles favorites this week as players fight to qualify for next month’s ITA Oracle Cup.

“(Bonacia) is one of the top players in the country,” Hodges said. “He’s definitely a guy who could win the whole thing.”

The same can be said for one of the women’s singles favorites, Maria Genovese. The Texan also is considered among the nation’s best and is GGC’s top returning player.

Teammates Eva Siska, a freshman from New York who enrolled at GGC in August, and Yelyzaveta Velykorodna, a returning starter from Ukraine, also are in the ITA South Regional field.

The current on-campus group is much smaller than a normal fall, but it hasn’t lessened the excitement of the opening tournament.

“We’ve really been focused on developing these (on-campus) student-athletes and putting them in a position to be as successful as possible in this regional,” Hodges said.

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Sports Editor for the Gwinnett Daily Post and Regional Sports Director for Southern Community Newspapers, Inc. A Gwinnett native documenting Gwinnett County sports with the GDP since 1997.

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