Daily Egyptian

Lone senior hopes to lead young Salukis

By Thomas Donley

On a team where freshmen make up two-thirds of the roster, seniors play a pivotal role in guiding the freshmen through growing pains.

In the case of the SIU men’s tennis team, that responsibility lies with Szymon Opieczonek.

The Naklow, Poland native said his biggest goal is to win the Missouri Valley Conference title.

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“That’s been my goal since I was a freshman,” Opieczonek said. “I want to win as many matches as I can, but I think winning the conference would be the cherry on top for me.”

Six of the 9 players on the Saluki roster are freshmen. Coach Dann Nelson said Opieczonek has done well guiding his young teammates through the first four tournaments of the season.

“Szymon is a great leader,” Nelson said. “He is able to lead by example and also able to lead vocally. When something isn’t going the way it should, he’ll speak up. That is a great trait for a leader to have.”

Opieczonek has been a better doubles player than a singles player throughout his career. He finished each of his first three seasons with a winning record in doubles, although he is 2-3 in doubles this fall.

He played primarily with Jorge Cavero the past two years. With junior Jonny Rigby and sophomore Michal Kianicka locked in as the No. 1 doubles pair, he has been asked to mentor younger doubles partners.

“He’s very valuable because we can interchange him with other players,” Nelson said. “He’s not only a great doubles player, but also a teacher on the court with his partners. He’s always positive.”

Opieczonek played the season’s first three doubles matches with freshman Alex Pozo. The pair won two matches together at Middle Tennessee State. Nelson paired Opieczonek with freshman Ransom Braaten at the SIU Fall Classic on Saturday. The two dropped both matches against Eastern Illinois.

Despite his success in doubles, Opieczonek said playing doubles was the biggest adjustment for him when he began his career at SIU because he rarely played doubles in Europe.

Opieczonek said he could teach the international freshmen about the American style of tennis with his experience.

While Opieczonek’s record to this point in the fall is not as good as it has been in the past, his leadership brings something harder to measure to his younger teammates.

“He’ll tell me what I should be thinking and how to stay positive,” Pozo said. “It’s hard to explain, but it helps.”

Nelson said Opieczonek has made improvements each year since he was a freshman. Opieczonek was not a part of the Salukis’ regular singles lineup until his junior year, when he played his way into the top four, he said.

Nelson said Opieczonek’s is a focal point for his younger teammates because he is the lone senior.

“When you have seniors on your team, you’re playing for them, so to speak,” Nelson said. “With only having one senior in Szymon, we can focus on him and do the best we can for his senior year.”

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