| By Ben Kelly

In the 2010-2011 fall and spring season, the Fordham University men’s tennis team had to wait until February to record its first win. The Rams went on to win three more matches to finish 4-18 on the year, landing in last place in the Atlantic-10 Conference for the fifth consecutive year. With a revamped roster and a fighter’s mentality, the 2011 Rams can’t wait to bury the past in head coach Cory Hubbard’s second season.

Fordham expects to contend for the top spot in the conference standings by championship weekend in April. But is a championship really within reach for a team coming off a 4-18 season? This team believes so, and Fordham’s initial results have the Rams fired up.

After the opening weekend of the 2011 season, Fordham has nearly surpassed last year’s win total, running away with three dominant performances against opponents that beat the Rams last year.

On Saturday, Fordham hit the road for a match in Loudonville, New N.Y. against Sienna College, avenging a 5-2 home loss in 2010 with a clean sweep of the Saints, 7-0.

Fordham returned for its home opener on Sunday, a doubleheader against local teams from St. Peter’s College (Jersey City) and St. Francis College (Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.). The Rams romped their rivals with two more 7-0 shutout victories, stamping an exclamation point on a breakout weekend and a staggering turnaround from last year’s 6-1 and 4-3 defeats.

Atlantic-10 foes beware: Fordham is hungry for success, and after years of being a conference punching bag, the Rams are looking to deliver payback knockouts.

Junior Alex DeRienzo from Queens, N.Y. and star at St. Francis Prep, won at sixth singles against St. Francis College on Sunday in straight sets, 6-1, 6-1. DeRienzo, voted the team MVP last season, feels his team is ready to put together a championship caliber season.

“It just feels great to start out with a winning record right away,” DeRienzo said. “We’ve got a lot of new talent on the team that’s going to do a lot for the team this year, really building it up from where we left off last year.”

That new talent came in the form of the nation’s 27th ranked recruiting class, ranking fifth best among mid-majors. The seven-member class, compiled in Coach Hubbard’s first season with the team, features five freshmen and two transfers from hometowns ranging from Cancun, Mexico to Portland, Ore. and Basel, Switzerland. The Rams’ number one singles player is sophomore Jakub “Kuba” Kowalski, a former number two-ranked junior in his native Poland. In his first three singles matches at Fordham, Kowalski won three out of his six sets 6-0, and has dropped only six games total.

Kowalski, fellow sophomore and St. John’s transfer Mischa Koran of Switzerland, and freshman J.J. Tauil from Valley Stream, N.Y. were among the standout performers at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx this weekend. Fordham’s home courts are quickly developing a reputation for being a hostile environment to visitors for the Rams’ energetic play, intensity and volume of players and supporters. Hubbard, in replacing Fordham coaching legend Bob Hawthorn, who led the Rams on the court for an incredible 54 seasons from 1956-2010, brought with him a dynamic coaching environment acquired from his playing and coaching days in the Big-12 and Pac-12 conferences.

“That’s going to be the staple of any team I put out there,” said Coach Hubbard. “We’re going to play with heart and energy and emotion. One thing I say to my players is you control your energy, your intensity, and just how loud you are on the court, and if we do those three things better than the other team then I’m happy, and the result will speak for itself.”

Tauil, who played high school tennis at George W. Hewlett High on Long Island, is one of five freshman players who bought in to Coach Hubbard’s expectations for energy and intensity, and is hoping it will take the Rams to new heights this season.

“Now that I’m at college, I can see there are more people behind this team than I even realized. We definitely had a big crowd at home and you could feel us having more to fight for at home than at Sienna, it was really good inspiration and motivation for me to play better,” said Tauil. "This year, our goal is to win the Atlantic-10 championshi, and by the end of this year, for men’s tennis to be the best male sport at Fordham University.”

Coach Hubbard was excited for his players after enduring a difficult first season.

“Our guys fought hard last year and really set the tone and attitude I wanted," said Hubbard. "This weekend, especially with four freshmen and two sophomores being so young, I think we are definitely headed in the right direction. Our goal was to be 3-0 and to lead the nation in victories after the first weekend. So I’m happy, but we still have a lot of room for improvement.”

Fordham is enjoying its fastest start in years, but there is still work to be done to contend for conference championships. The Rams return to the court this month for the USTA NTC Collegiate Invitational Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, Sept. 23-25. The Rams are excited to open conference match play on Sept. 27 in Philadelphia with a grudge match with rival La Salle University, who beat Fordham twice last year, both by a 4-3 score.

“La Salle ... we circled that match on our calendar months ago,” said DeRienzo with a grin. “We’re all looking forward to that one very much."