Junior Stefan Fortmann recently earned Southern Conference Men’s Tennis Player of the Week for the week of March 3-9, making him the third Elon University player to earn the honor this season. But the South African’s journey to all-conference accolades was by no means conventional.
Fortmann had a rocky start to the 2014 campaign, losing five of his first six singles matches.
“I had been struggling for a while now, especially in singles play,” Fortmann said. “Playing sports at a high level, you’re going to get into slumps.”
Playing at No. 2 singles, Fortmann lost to Duke University’s Fred Saba, University of Virginia’s Alex Domijan and Samford University’s Fares Kilani without winning a single set. Fortmann’s struggles prompted Elon head coach Michael Leonard to make the tough decision to move him down in the lineup.
“It was really just to get him believing in himself a little bit more, putting him in a position where he’s not overmatched,” Leonard said.
Both Leonard and Fortmann agreed it was the right decision.
“Coach and I were very open about it to see what would be the best not only for myself but, more importantly, the team, and we decided that would be the way,” Fortmann said. “Obviously, you want to play as high up in the lineup as you can, but coach and I have a very honest relationship. We sat down, and, by that stage, I wasn’t really focused on individual accolades. I just wanted to be where I was winning for the team again.”
Fortmann’s struggles continued when he was moved down to No. 4 singles. Coming off a pair of defeats by East Tennessee State University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Fortmann had a chance to redeem himself against Brown University’s William Spector. The Phoenix jumped out to a 3-0 lead after taking the doubles point and winning the first two singles matches, but Brown fought back to tie the match at three.
“I remember vividly when Brian [Kowalski] had match point and lost in a third set tiebreaker, saying to myself, ‘There’s no use trying to makes excuses now,’” Fortmann said. “I really took it upon myself to make sure to get though the match and win it for the team because I knew it would do a lot for my confidence.”
Despite taking a nasty fall and hurting his ankle in the process, Fortmann rallied to earn a three-set 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 victory to give the Phoenix its fifth win of the year.
“That was definitely a turning point for my season,” Fortmann said. “I was really happy to pull out that victory for the boys.”
Leonard saw Fortmann’s win against Brown as a major stepping stone in his season.
“He won against Brown, [started] to build up confidence, and next thing you know he’s committing to the ball, he’s playing with a lot of energy and athleticism like he always did in the past,” Leonard said.
The junior said he believes a racket change played a part in his early-season struggles.
“Last year, I made a racket change to a lighter racket to get my arm to last a bit longer. The last two seasons, my arm has been so dead at the end because I’ve been using a stiff, heavy racket,” Fortmann said. “I switched to a lighter racket and it felt good at first, but once we got into really competitive play it didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped.”
Since abandoning the lighter racket, Fortmann has played a big part in Elon’s 3-0 start to Southern Conference play, winning all three singles matches as well as his three doubles matches with new partner junior Juan Madrid.
“They’re getting better every time,” Leonard said. “Juan’s solid. He’s a really good No. 3 doubles player, and he’s had a lot of success since he’s been down there. Stefan just had to realize Juan’s really solid, and [he doesn’t] have to overdo it.”
Fortmann and Madrid managed to win matches despite having to learn how to play with each other on the fly.
“Who Juan played with and who Stefan played with were totally different personalities than playing with each other, and they had to figure that out,” Leonard said. “The last match and a half, they’ve played phenomenal, and they’re playing at the level we think they can play at.”
But Fortmann said he believes their similarities made it an easy adjustment.
“Out of all the guys on the team, Juan and myself are probably the most similar when it comes to personality on the court, which makes it easy,” Fortmann said. “He’s just right where I need him to be energy-wise. Mentally, he’s always on the same wavelength as me, which definitely helps.”
With renewed confidence, Fortmann is looking to put his rough start past him and achieve his goal of winning a conference title.
“When you’re losing and not playing well, it’s not always that fun, and it’s easy to just dig yourself into a deeper hole, but for me it’s just realizing that it’s actually fun playing tennis and just trusting myself and going out there and competing,” Fortmann said. “Ultimately, it was just a lack of confidence, and I’m glad I’ve got it back now.”