South Carolina State Tennis: A Hidden Gem of Excellence

Title image via Kevin L. Dorsey

Courtesy of Rob Knox

Hardeep Judge has never taken anything for granted during his 21 years leading the South Carolina State men’s and women’s tennis programs. 

“Every year has its challenges and opportunities,” Judge said. “Every year will be different. To repeat (as conference champion) is not easy. We always have a bullseye. Our advantage is that we know what it takes to win and the type of work we have put in year in and year out.”

While the spring campaign may have featured its share of obstacles for the South Carolina State men’s and women’s tennis programs, it still ended with the same result: both Bulldog teams celebrating Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) championships. 

It was the third straight championship for each program. 

The women will begin NCAA Tournament play on Friday at No. 3 overall seed North Carolina State at the J.W. Isenhour Tennis Center in Raleigh, N.C., beginning at 5 p.m.

Meanwhile, the men will take a quick 47-mile trip to battle No. 9 overall seed South Carolina Friday at 2 p.m. It will be the second consecutive season that the Bulldogs and Gamecocks will meet in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

With both programs in the NCAA Tournament, Judge participated in his annual spring ritual of figuring out the logistics of travel, practice and meals during a busy day of meetings earlier in the week.

After all, he can’t be in two places at once. 

Aside from having elite student-athletes, South Carolina State’s consistent excellence has been rooted in a tried-and-true formula that has led to 18 men’s titles and 17 women’s championships. 

“One of our main philosophies is working hard because it can compensate for many things,” Judge said. “Both teams just outworked their opponents. Before and after practice, I would see many of them putting in extra work. I sometimes rode by the courts late at night and saw the lights on with several players hitting. I would see them working out on their own.”

The men’s program hasn’t lost a regular-season match to a MEAC opponent since 2016 – a 26-match regular-season winning streak against conference competition. Between the 15 players on both rosters, 11 different countries are represented and 10 earned All-MEAC Academic recognition. 

Judge, who played tennis at South Carolina State in 1989 and 1990, has been the perfect leader for the Bulldogs. He was born in Lutron, England, and raised in Ontario, Canada. Judge has always been passionate about tennis, even when he worked with his family.

Judge has been named MEAC Women’s Tennis Coach of the Year six times. He has won the MEAC Men’s Tennis Coach of the Year eight times.

“The ability to come back and coach where I played while leading other people to bigger and better things after tennis has been the ultimate reward for me,” Judge said. “Championships are great, but seeing the development of each player on and off the court has been meaningful. My family wanted me to be involved in the family business, but my heart was always in tennis. It’s where I found my purpose.” 

The women were fueled this season by MEAC Player of the Year Sofiya Chursina, a junior who was also the women’s Outstanding Performer of the conference tournament. She was a perfect 6-0 in MEAC play from the No. 1 singles position, going 10-5 overall. She won all six conference singles matches in straight sets, and was a perfect 6-0 in MEAC doubles matches – all at the No. 1 slot. 

Chursina is the Bulldogs’ second MEAC Player of the Year in three seasons (Rachida Berjane in 2021).

Junior Hind Simlali rebounded from a torn anterior cruciate ligament to earn All-MEAC First Team honors, while junior Nalanda Silva was named to the All-MEAC Second Team. Juniors Rachida Berjane, sophomore Teodora Vujicic and Melania Vashkevich also enjoyed memorable moments during the season for the Bulldogs. 

“I am proud of both teams this season,” Judge said. “The women battled all year. With only six players, we had to finesse so much this season. The right mix of practice, rest, and spacing out matches so we could finish the year without injuries. On the men’s side, we lost six matches, 4-3. Lots of injuries throughout the season, but guys still battled no matter who was out of the lineup.”

The Bulldog men have earned respect throughout the country, which could be why S.C. State is facing a No. 9 seed instead of a top-four seed. Still a daunting task against a top-10 opponent, but a hurdle that’s not impossible and a sign of where Judge has the program going. 

Judge has a solid nucleus built upon players among the top 150 in the country in International Tennis Association (ITA) world junior rankings: freshman Mikalai Bankou, sophomore Rostislav Halfinger and sophomore Aissa Benchakroun. 

Freshman Novak Novakovic is the sixth Bulldog to be named Rookie of the Year (and the second straight, after Halfinger last season). Novakovic went 6-2 in singles play on the season, all at the No. 2 slot, including a 3-1 mark in MEAC play. He was just as strong in doubles action, going 6-1 overall and a perfect 4-0 in league play – most of which came at the No. 3 position.

Sophomore Pedro Sasso, along with Novakovic and Benchakroun, was named to the All-MEAC First Team. Junior Benjamin Niv Hughes is ATP ranked. Senior Selim Ben Ali, junior Luka Stefanovic and sophomore Ivan Pauliuchenka have also made meaningful contributions during the season.

Sasso, specifically, was the MEAC Tennis Championship Outstanding Performer.

“I feel people look at us and know how our program ranks,” Judge said. “We are an excellent program. We have nationally-ranked programs that call us and want to play us now. The respect is there. We’ve won good matches outside of the conference against some quality opponents and played teams very closely. We are not too far away from taking it to the next level. I am excited about where this program can go.”

South Carolina State’s sustained brilliance has also benefited the MEAC, as other programs have strengthened. On the women’s side, Morgan State and Howard knocked off South Carolina State last season. This year, Delaware State’s women advanced to the program’s first MEAC championship match. 

“It’s great to see that everybody in the conference has stepped up their game and gotten better,” Judge, who has the home courts at South Carolina State named in his honor, said. “As a program, we always talk about having character. We define character as not what you’re doing when everyone is watching, but what you do when nobody is paying attention.”

The South Carolina State men’s and women’s tennis programs have been an Orangeburg, S.C., treasure worth noticing because they have consistently brought distinction to its beautiful campus. 

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional. A member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Hall of Fame, Knox currently serves as the Senior Director of Strategic Communications for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity and earned the CSC Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award. Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators (CSC).

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