University at Buffalo men's tennis coach Lee Nickell had to make a change after the team dropped its first two matches of the spring season. He swapped his doubles groupings for the Bulls' Jan. 28 meeting with St. John's, uniting his two seniors, Vidit Vaghela and Petr Vodak, on the second pair.
There hasn't been a reason to separate them since.
Vodak and Vaghela have gone 10-3 since joining forces, moving up to the team's No. 1 pair and into a spot in the NCAA rankings, which lists the top 90 duos in the country. They are the first doubles pair in UB history to earn a national ranking, claiming the No. 64 spot in their debut last week and the No. 71 spot this week.
"It's very hard for a school like us to get in the national rankings," said Nickell, UB's head coach for the last nine years. "We've had a couple in singles on and off, but in doubles it is super tough. Did I expect it? No, absolutely not."
The main hurdle mid-major tennis programs face is an inability to prove themselves against top competition. Vodak and Vaghela made the most of their chances by beating two ranked doubles teams in the past month. They bested Harvard's Kenny Tao and Logan Weber (ranked No. 70 at the time) as well as Columbia's Jack Lin and William Matheson (No. 34).
"Not many people from mid-majors get a chance to get ranked considering the system they have in place right now," Vaghela said. "I will take it, for sure."
"Luckily this was toward the end of the season," Vodak added. "If we had played those teams in the first couple of matches, we wouldn't have probably been ready to play them."
There wasn't a letdown after earning the ranking, either. Vodak and Vaghela won both their doubles matches this weekend at the Miller Tennis Center, defeating Binghamton's Kushaan Nath and Tiago Lourenco and Toledo's Luka Vitosevic and Danilo Vukotic.
The pair, both listed at 5-foot-9 and under 150 pounds, grew up more than 5,500 miles away from one another. Vaghela is from Ahmedabad, India, and Vodak from Kromeriz, Czech Republic. That hasn't affected their connection, which isn't a surprise. Every player on the Bulls' team is used to other cultures since UB's tennis roster resembles a United Nations meeting more than a sports team. There's one American, Flushing native Ethan Nittolo. The remaining seven players are from seven different countries across Europe, Asia and Africa.
"I don't even feel like we come from different parts of the world," Vodak said. "When it comes to tennis, it doesn't matter where you're from."
The similarities bring them together more than the differences divide them. Both transferred into UB, Vaghela from Monmouth and Vodak from a Czech university. Both have traveled the world to compete and faced tough NCAA eligibility battles when coming to UB. Off the court, they are roommates as well.
"There's a connection," Nickell said. "There's a chemistry. ... The positive energy is the key. They both convey such confidence and positive energy right now that I don't sweat it when they're down because they return so well."
Their games compliment each other, too. Vodak plays a precision game, while Vaghela is more of a power hitter. The longer they play together, the more connected they become and the easier it is to strategize.
"Our thoughts kind of merge with each other," Vaghela said. "Understanding each other, that's the key."
Vodak and Vaghela's goal for the rest of the season is simple: Stay ranked. They know they can't have many hiccups the rest of the way. Three matches remain on the regular season schedule (starting with Sunday's 11 a.m. home match against Western Michigan at Miller Tennis Center) before the Mid-American Conference Tournament, which UB will host on April 27-28.
"If we want to keep the ranking, we cannot lose a single match," Vodak said with a laugh. "And that still doesn't guarantee we are going to stay in the rankings. ... The goal is not to lose and pray the rankings work so that we stay there."