April 20, 2015
It starts with a fist pump that punches the air in triumph.
Then, there's the scream, a release of pure unbridled emotion that celebrates the selfless summit of teamwork on the tennis court.
On Friday, big serves and big returns helped Lawson and Pecor serve notice that their skilled play and blazing emotion have the potential to lead them to the ultimate celebration in college tennis, the NCAA Championships May 14-25 in Waco, Texas.
Lawson and Pecor, ranked No. 12 in the nation, scored an 8-5 victory against No. 10 Skander Mansouri and Christian Seraphim of Wake Forest on the Courtney Tennis Center courts. No. 12 Wake Forest gained the upper hand in singles and scored a 4-3 victory against No. 37 Notre Dame.
Owning a 6-1 record in rugged Atlantic Coast Conference competition, Lawson and Pecor improved to 9-4 (fall and spring) against ranked competition and have clearly established themselves in the national championship conversation.
"I don't think we're afraid to talk about it," Notre Dame coach Ryan Sachire said of the potential championship season that could become reality for Pecor and Lawson. "They're one of probably 10 to 15 teams that know they can win the tournament if they play well. At this level there's a lot of parity. They're really talented, but so are a lot of other teams. It may be how much can they improve between now and then, when they get down to Waco and then who is playing the best tennis of the teams that are capable of doing well. If they take one match at a time and play their best tennis, they're going to have a chance to beat anybody."
One of the biggest challenges for a tennis coach is to fit the pieces of doubles teams together perfectly. Sachire's coaching insights lead him to look for players who have skills that can mesh together -- a player who is a strong set-up man paired with a strong finisher -- yet he also knows he has to match up players who can work together.
"Probably the bigger thing, the more important thing, is personalities that can feed off one another," Sachire said of solving a doubles puzzle. "There's a lot of logic, yet, obviously, it's more about trial and error a little bit. You can usually tell if a great doubles team is going to click from the first time you put them together because their personalities mesh and you can see their games meshing. Clearly an example of that is our No. 1 team. They play well together, but probably most importantly they feed off each other really well emotionally."
Lawson and Pecor both bring fire to their matches. Their fiery emotion fuels a passionate attack.
"We have a lot of fire," Lawson said. "We'll win points, and we'll just go crazy. It's fun. We'll win a big point, and we're just screaming in each other's faces. It's a huge adrenaline rush. We're playing our best when we're knocking off volleys and screaming in each other's faces. It makes us a really tough team to play."
Pecor said he and Lawson have similar temperament, but they also have different talents and skills sets they have learned to use to their advantage.
"I'm a big right-handed player, and Al is a big left-handed player," Pecor said. "That's a very tough combination to start off with in general for anybody you're playing. You naturally have an advantage if it's a windy day or a sunny day. I don't have to worry about serving right into the sun, because Al is a lefty and he'll switch and be on the other side.
"The righty-lefty combo is a big advantage, and Al is a huge guy. He's got like a 35-inch vertical jump. He's got good hands at the net. He's able to cover a lot of the court at the net, and he likes being up there. He's also a very energetic player. When you put the two of us together, with borderline crazy energy on the court . . . we feed off each other. We get each other fired up with positive energy and a lot of natural doubles instincts."
According to Sachire, Lawson and Pecor have been a tremendous pairing.
"They're really good," Sachire said. "Going back to the concept of setting each other up, they both play a very aggressive style. Billy is probably more known for his returning and his ability to set up balls for Alex to finish. Alex is really athletic and really good at running the net and does a great job of cleaning up what Billy creates."
Sachire spends plenty of time, especially in the fall, teaching doubles skills to players who usually arrive at the college level with a mostly singles experience. Because doubles is valuable given the point and format of college tennis, there is an emphasis on developing strong doubles players, although Sachire makes sure the doubles training carries over to the singles game in terms of skills such as finishing around the net.
Pecor's athletic ability and his game are better suited to doubles.
"I'm more of a natural doubles player," Pecor said. "I like doubles. I have pretty good instincts. I'm a very explosive player. It's easy to take control of a team in terms of game plan, confidence and energy."
Pecor has an exceptional talent in terms of timing. He's a power player who loves to go on the attack. Pecor is also highly intellectual, and his mastery of knowledge in terms of tennis allows him to develop and execute strategies that take advantage of his power while meshing with Lawson's talents.
"I like to use the power I generate to my advantage," Pecor said. "It goes very well with a doubles style because the points are a lot shorter. You can be very explosive. You can hit some big shots . . . one-two finishes. In singles, points can end up an ace or a 50-, 60-, 100-ball rally. Being a bigger and maybe not as fast guy leads me to playing that kind of linear, powerful game style that translates well to doubles. Finding someone who can complement that allows that game style to be very effective in doubles."
Lawson is extremely athletic, and he also has an intellectual approach and aggressive attack that fit in perfectly with Pecor's game.
"The points are usually a lot shorter," Lawson said. "You see guys who are pretty athletic excelling in doubles, and guys who have a lot more creativity. Maybe college doubles is also a little bit more one-two plays . . . a big serve and knocking off a volley. Billy and I are pretty good at that.
"I think it's a combination of our energy, and we've done a better job as the season has gone on. We're always pretty good in our one-two combos in our service game, holding serve -- and we're a really good returning team. Billy has some of the best returns in the country, and I've gotten a lot better at it since I've gotten here."
It takes the hottest fire to forge the toughest steel, and this season the fire burning within Lawson and Pecor has the potential to forge a championship legacy.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent