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UConn leaving Appleman without a racket

At 53 years old, Christian Appleman thought when he accepted the director of men’s tennis position at the University of Connecticut, it would be his last stop.

After all, he had spent the better part of 30 years in college coaching, both basketball and tennis, dating back to his start as a graduate assistant with the Penn State men’s basketball program in 1989 under Bruce Parkhill.

Instead, his UConn tenure lasted just seven months after the school announced June 24 that it was terminating its men’s program, one of five teams eliminated.

The former Williamsburg athlete became a victim of the coronavirus without, thankfully, actually getting it.

“It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around the whole thing,” Appleman was saying the other day.

Thanks in part to a series of failed football decisions — and when football makes fails, everybody else pays for it — UConn needed to trim $10 million from its athletic coffers over three years.

Still, because the Huskies’ tennis team offers no scholarships and has an annual budget of less than $175,000, Appleman “thought we’d be OK.”

With Appleman driving the van, they mainly played regional opponents that didn’t necessitate overnight accommodations and “basically we had one (paid) meal.”

And yet, UConn’s decision isn’t unique to college tennis.

Appleman said the past couple of years “close to 60 (tennis) programs, either men or women,” have been cut.

It underscores a bigger problem for the sport.

“Tennis programs in general are disappearing,” Appleman, who was an assistant at Yale for 14 years prior to UConn, said. “It’s a combination of a lot of factors — a down sport generationally as far as playing in U.S. It doesn’t get a lot of exposure collegiately. It’s hard to watch. The matches are real long, and it’s something a lot of athletic departments don’t embrace. It’s not basketball with a scoreboard or football or even volleyball or lacrosse. Golf is the same way. You don’t get a lot of fans.”

UConn has committed to keeping the program for the 2021 season — and Appleman has committed to coaching the Huskies through it.

“It’s hard for guys to transfer now — and especially you’re in a pandemic,” he said. “Once next May hits, the program’s dissolved. Will guys want to come back and play here for one season?”

Because of its affiliation with Nike, UConn supplied its players with rackets, apparel and shoes whereas “some programs make the players pay for their own stringing or you get one pair of shoes, and you have to pay for the next two pairs. We didn’t want for anything, gear-wise.”

At the same time, tennis coaches must decide “what restaurant are we going to eat at where you can save $20. We’re not going to Ruth’s Chris.”

Appleman will see what opportunities present themselves a year from now and is hopeful he’ll land softly. The commute to UConn is less than an hour from his home near Yale.

His wife, Erin, has been Yale’s head volleyball coach for 17 seasons. Son Justin is a freshman at Michigan State and a manager on the volleyball team — “he and Sparty are best friends,” his dad cracked — and daughter Emma, a rising senior, has committed to playing volleyball at the College of Charleston.

“It’s still fluid right now,” Appleman said of his plans. “Our guys are pursuing their options, and that could take a couple months. I’m not going to explore anything else until we see where it all goes. If I was younger, the knee-jerk reaction might be to say I’m leaving, but as you get older, you want stability.”

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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