As his Georgia Gwinnett College teammates posed for more pictures, laughing and celebrating a historic 100th straight victory, top-ranked Federico Herrera Duran was slugging away on the court right next to them.
Herrera Duran got a moment between sets to jump into a few of the pictures with the banner, but then had to go back to his match. More than 30 minutes later, he was still on the court, working on a 6-3, 7-6 (7-0) victory over Northwestern Ohio’s No. 1 player, Artur Culicovschi.
“Any time you play at the No. 1 position, you don’t get days off,” Grizzlies head coach Chase Hodges said. “Every match is going to be a challenge because, I don’t care who you play, everybody has a good No. 1. I feel like he’s accepted that role. He can’t take matches off. He’s having to grind every day, but it’s making him better and better.”
Herrera Duran is the first player to work his way up through the lineup to get to the No. 1 spot. In the Grizzlies’ short but illustrious history, the top player, first Jordan Cox and then Kevin Konfederak, have had the spot from the jump.
Herrera Duran came in as a freshman in 2017 and played at the No. 5 spot. In fact, he was the one to clinch the national title, one in a string of five straight now for GGC.
“That was, for me, one of the best moments I’ve ever had here,” Herrera Duran said. “Everyone jumping and coming to my court. Everything was brand new for me. I’d never had that experience before in my life. Back in Argentina, I always played for myself. I never played for a club or as a team.”
He moved up a spot as a sophomore to No. 4 and helped the Grizzlies to yet another NAIA championship.
Hodges wasn’t expecting him to be the No. 1 guy as a junior, but Herrera Duran had a breakout fall season and there was no denying his position in the lineup.
Herrera Duran won the NAIA singles title and vaulted to the No. 1 spot, not just for GGC, but in the national rankings.
“He’s proven himself as the best player in the country,” Hodges said. “Based on his fall individual performance, where he had to beat a lot of his own teammates, and outside competition, it put him in a position where he earned that No. 1 spot.
“I’ve always known he was a great player. I would never question whether he could get it done at 1. It was just a matter of is he the guy to play 1 for this team? With the amount of talent on this team, can he be that guy? He’s proven himself to be that guy.”
Herrera Duran is here, in large part, due to his friendship with compatriot Konfederak.
“Back in Argentina, I was thinking about coming here, to the United States to play,” he said. “I have already older friends that tell me don’t waste this opportunity.
“Then I asked Kevin, one of my closest friends that was already here, ‘How is it?’ He told me, yes, it’s good. You should come here. You must come here.”
The Argentinian connections have become a terrifically productive recruiting pipeline for Hodges.
“That’s been the bread and butter for me on the men’s side,” Hodges said. “One thing is certain, when you get a kid from Argentina, he’s going to be a fighter. They’ll do whatever it takes.”
Herrera Duran doesn’t make many mistakes on the court. He isn’t going to beat himself.
“He’s willing to stay out there all day and grind,” Hodges said. “He’s very fit. He can stay out there and do whatever it takes.
“If I’m playing him, I just know it’s going to be a long day and nothing is going to come free. I feel like the odds are stacked in our favor that he can get the job done every time he steps out on the court.”
He’s also an invaluable piece when it comes to doubles pairings.
“I can put him with anyone,” Hodges said. “He’s so laid back.He’s been phenomenal.”
Herrera Duran made the most of his first two seasons with the program, soaking up valuable knowledge from the No. 1s ahead of him.
“He’s been around phenomenal players,” Hodges said. “I’m a firm believer in that if you surround yourself with high-level players you’ll become one yourself. You see how they train. You see how they work. He was like a sponge his first year and even his second year.
“Now he’s taken GGC, our tradition, he feels like he’s got to uphold that because he’s been around that talent. I feel like that’s an extra motivation for him, all the success we’ve had, that he wants to maintain it.”
The Grizzlies, who haven’t lost a match since April 2015, are aiming for their sixth straight NAIA title. The tournament begins today in Mobile, Ala. The streak has taken on a life of its own, but it wasn’t really at the forefront of the players’ minds until this season.
“The first two years we, to be honest, don’t even care about the streak,” Herrera Duran said. “Then this year, the streak becomes something bigger. Every time we would get closer to 100, it’s was like, wow. That puts a little bit of pressure, but at the end of the day, the practice here is sometimes even harder than the matches so that’s a good thing. But the schedule this year was unreal.
“Each of us, we are pushing each other to get better. At the end of the day, we are family.”
Hodges said he’s never had a men’s team that was this close.
Much of that attitude flows from the top down.
“The culture on the men’s side is the best it’s ever been. It’s just amazing,” Hodges said. “These guys do everything together. They’re best friends. They go to battle with each other every day and the respect they have for one another is truly incredible. Whether you’re the No. 1 guy, or the 10 guy, the respect is equal.”