Seniors Brian Kowalski and Stefan Fortmann may have spent a lot of time together during the last four years, but this is the first season when they are sharing a court. The duo has been leading the way for the Elon University men’s tennis team as the No. 1 doubles pair.
“Character-wise, it’s a good partnership for us,” Fortmann said. “Brian is always real friendly and we do well for each other.”
During that span, Fortmann and Kowalski have won three matches, and were leading and tied in the two matches that went unfinished. Fortmann said the chemistry has come naturally, like any good doubles team.
“We just think the same way and have the same feel of the game,” he said.
The two began playing together in the fall and soon realized the potential they had as a duo.
When they approached head coach Michael Leonard, he had the same idea.
“[Fortmann] is obviously a really high level doubles player,” Kowalski said. “I know that from playing with and against him in practice we both felt that we could do well together.”
Fortmann played most of the last two seasons from the No. 1 doubles spot, partnering with program standout, Cameron Silverman. Kowalski had played predominantly from the No. 2 doubles position and was eager to make the jump to the top spot.
“It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, but haven’t had the opportunity to,” he said, adding that Fortmann’s experience at No. 1 doubles eased the transition and took a load of pressure off him. Now, they feel their play needs to kick-start the rest of the team from the beginning of every match.
“I think our court can be and should be a big court,” Kowalski said. “We’re both seniors, we’re both leaders, so we feel like we need to step it up each time and start well.”
The pair’s season got off to a rocky start, with losses in their first three matches. The first match was a forgettable one, as they lost 6-1 to seniors Thaigo Pinheiro and Kyle Koch of the University of South Carolina.
“We had a tough start to the year being hurt a little bit,” Kowalski said. “We had to get used to playing with each other, but when we play our best and when we’re playing with energy and running all over the court, we feel we can compete with anyone in the country.”
That confidence was put to the test in the next match when they faced the No. 2 doubles team in the country, the University of Tennessee’s sophomore Mikelis Libietis and fifth-year senior Hunter Reese. They had previously been the top-ranked doubles team in the nation, winning the 2014 NCAA doubles championship and were named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association 2014 Doubles Team of the Year.
After playing them in the fall, Kowalski and Fortmann were ready for another shot at the defending champs.
“We didn’t feel overpowered,” Fortmann said. “We didn’t feel over-matched, so going into the second match, we knew we had a good shot at winning.”
Kowalski and Fortmann lost the contest 6-4, and felt it was a match that got away. The two were in great position to pull off the upset, leading 4-3, but dropped the next three games to lose the match.
“It was really tough losing that one,” Kowalski said. “If we were playing at a really high level, we both thought we could have won that match.”
Kowalski and Fortmann lost their next match against the University of Utah, and were tied at 5-5 in the following match against Michigan State’s Brett Forman, a sophomore, and senior Gijs Linders. The improving results meant Kowalski and Fortmann were turning a corner.
“We know that if we play up to our potential we can compete with and beat any team in the nation,” Fortmann said. “We kind of got out of that mindset.”
The pair’s first win came against Old Dominion University freshmen Adam Moundir and Michael Weindl. They followed up two days later with a 6-1 victory over sophomore Michal Voscek and redshirt-junior Joseph Cohen of Virginia Commonwealth University. Their winning streak continued after a defeat of Campbell University’s Steven Billington, a senior, and freshman Jonathan O’Neal. Kowalski and Fortmann were just a game away from making it four in a row, but their match against Presbyterian College went unfinished.
With the season still young, Kowalski and Fortmann time on their side to get more in-sync. Kowalski says Leonard can always point out things in film sessions he and Fortmann would overlook.
On the court, Fortmann said they’ve been working on perfecting their serves, something he says can never be practiced enough.
“We’re not the biggest guys, so hitting our spots on the first serve and having a high first serve percentage is key for us,” Fortmann said. “When we’re hitting first serves in our spots we usually don’t get broken because things just fall into our strengths.”
As winter weather continues to disrupt the team’ s schedule, Fortmann wants to keep the wins rolling whenever they return to the court.
“We’ve gone out and gotten a couple of wins,” he said. “We’re riding on a wave of confidence so hopefully we can keep that going.”