Barely teenagers when they first met, A.J. Catanzariti and Jordi Arconada had little idea they would one day play key roles for Texas A&M in maintaining an NCAA tournament run that dates to 1994.
Arconada, a Buenos Aires, Argentina native, recalls living in Puerto Rico for roughly four years when he lost a match at the National Clay Court Championships to Catanzariti, who hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Less than two years later, Arconada moved with his coach to the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland, where Catanzariti had been attending for six months.
Both remembered their conversation after the match. They seemed to have common interests, and it didn't take long for them to become friends at JTCC.
"I thought he was a heck of a player," Arconada said, reflecting back on the day he lost to Catanzariti in their initial match. "After the match we talked for a little bit. I always knew he was a nice guy and a great guy. Once we really started training together, we got to know each other better, and we really got along."
The two spent nearly four years together at JTCC, becoming more like family.
"At first, we were just friends, but then, we became like brothers," Catanzariti said.
The brothers are now juniors at A&M, having helped the Aggies to the Southeastern Conference championship as freshmen in 2015 as well as the NCAA tournament during their first two years. This season, A&M started 17-5 overall, 10-1 in the SEC and had risen to No. 7 in the country prior to a season-ending gauntlet that includes powerhouse Georgia, followed by the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
Prior to the Georgia match, Arconada owned a 16 match-winning streak, was 18-3 overall, 16-1 in dual matches and a dazzling 9-0 in SEC play. That pushed his career record to 48-25 at Texas A&M. Catanzariti, meanwhile, started the season playing most of his matches on the No. 2 court. Facing some exceptional talent has left him 11-13 overall and 5-4 in the SEC, but he is still the Aggies' active career victory leader with a record with a healthy total of 78 wins.
"A.J. played lower in our lineup last year and now has been playing higher up," A&M coach Steve Denton said. "I think he has acquitted himself very well playing where he's been playing. Jordi has had a little different path, starting a little further back, but he kept winning and winning so we moved him up."
Through it all, the friends constantly drive each other to improve and succeed.
"I think we're both pretty competitive, but in a good way," Catanzariti said. "We don't want to lose to each other. I think that's key. It's more than just 'Oh, we're friends and we help each other.' We sometimes get mad at each other, but it is in a way that helps each of us get better."
Being able to do that goes back to their time at JTCC.
It isn't rare to see two athletes from the same school decide to stick together for college, but for Arconada and Catanzariti, there are some differences.
Catanzariti is a proud product of Steel City in the heart of the Rust Belt, while Arconada hails from a city located more than 5,000 miles away and known as a cultural hub of South America. The two may not be the Odd Couple, but they do come from markedly diverse backgrounds.
Despite two disparate paths, their progression to tennis shares some similarities.
As an Argentinian, soccer was Arconada's favorite sport growing up. His mom, Cecillia, was a gymnastics coach, so he participated in that, as well as swimming and tennis.
His older brother, Imanol, who later played at Ball State, eventually focused on tennis. Jordi followed her lead. After the family moved to Puerto Rico when Jordi was 10, tennis became his primary sport.
Plenty to Smile About
The duo of Catanzariti and Arconada may have come from different countries, but they have combined to help put A&M in position to claim another SEC title this spring. With postseason play still to come, the Aggies expect to make some noise in both the SEC the NCAA tournaments.
As for Catanzariti, his sports journey started with baseball. The avid Pittsburgh Pirates fan branched out thanks to his mother, Tami, who is a figure skating coach. Catanzariti tried that, but his father preferred he play hockey. His older sister, Gabrielle, who later played four years of tennis at the University of Pittsburgh, started playing tennis more and more. A.J. followed in her footsteps.
Once Arconada and Catanzariti found each other at JTCC, they forged a friendship both on the court and during the several trips around the world that high-level junior tennis demands. One voyage in particular to South America gave Arconada the chance to help his friend out on his home continent.
Catanzariti explained how what should have been a 90-minute journey from Puerto Rico, to Caracas, Venezuela, became a two-day ordeal. They flew to Bogota, where they spent the night before a 6 a.m. flight to Lima and another flight to Caracas, where they still needed a 90-minute cab ride to the tournament.
"Venezuela was crazy. We got to the airport, pick up our bags and were escorted out by people with guns," Catanzariti said. "We go to the car and they said 'Don't worry, it's bulletproof glass.' We were just two 16-year-olds."
Denton looks for tennis players who have had those kinds of experiences. Not so much for their ability to deal with travel nightmares, but because their extensive travel means they have competed against skilled players around the globe.
"We like that because they were battle tested," Denton said. "They had played in the grand slam junior tournaments, which is a big deal. You know you're getting guys who are used to playing in front of big crowds, are accustomed to big-match situations and have competed against the top juniors in the world.
"You know they will flourish under pressure."
Denton had grabbed someone with that ability from JTCC once before in Junior Ore, who played at A&M from 2011-14.
During their stint at JTCC, Catanzariti and Arconada honed their skills with other academy alums, such as Frances Tiafoe, currently ranked No. 89 on the ATP Tour, South Carolina's Thomas Mayronne and Yancy Dennis and Tennessee's Julian Zblonsky.
This season, Denton has watched his two current JTCC grads blossom.
"Their games are more mature," Denton said. "They have become all-court players, meaning that sometimes, junior players come to you more one-dimensional. Now, they've become pretty good in all different phases of the game. They have really amped it up this year and are playing the big, key moments in matches well."
Arconada earned SEC Player of the Week honors on April 5, honoring his first two wins of the season on court two. That included a triumph over No. 26-ranked Jose Salazar of Arkansas, giving him a victory over his highest-ranked opponent.
A hard-fought win over Mississippi State's Mate Curtura on April 7 gave Arconada a 10-1 record in three-set matches this season.
"He's playing the big points really well," Denton said. "He's competing really hard. He's keeping his emotions in check a little bit more. He's a South American, and the blood runs hot sometimes. He's been able to keep that under control and channel that into competitive fire and determination, which I think has been key for him."
On March 15, the SEC made Catanzariti its Player the Week after he produced wins against Vanderbilt and No. 18 Kentucky. He beat the Wildcats' Ryotaro Matsumura (7-5, 7-5), the nation's No. 25 player, and the highest ranked opponent of his career.
The Aggies fell behind 2-0 in the March 12 match with Kentucky, and Catanzariti's victory evened the score at 2-2. Later, Arconada clinched that team win, 4-3, surviving two match points to knock off No. 75 Nils Ellefsen in the last match standing.
Other teammates named SEC Player of the Week this season include Arthur Rinderknech and Aleksandre Bakshi.
Players and coaches say they owe their success this season to keeping goals to a minimum. After winning the SEC title as freshmen, the team set some lofty ambitions that didn't pan in 2016. The Aggies reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, but the season still felt somewhat disappointing.
Now, they are trying to limit the pressure.
"The reason we're doing so well is because we just kind of keep our head down and we're all fighting," Catanzariti said. "We're not looking a couple of matches ahead. We're just looking to the next match. I think that is our goal, and that is why we're doing so well."
Denton credits assistant coach Kevin O'Shea for coming up with the mindset.
"We're focused on the process as you hear from (Alabama football coach) Nick Saban all of the time," Denton said. "Focus on things like working hard every time, being mentally tough. We changed some things in our practices a bit and tweaked some things this year. That's helped us significantly."
If the different thought process has helped this season, then things should get even better next year as all six top singles players return, including Arconada, Catanzariti and Rinderknech for their senior years. Freshmen Hady Habib, who is 13-1 and a SEC-best 10-0 with a 13-match win streak, and Valentin Vacherot should be even better in 2018.
But that's thinking too far ahead.
Arconada and Catanzariti, friends and brothers who live so close to one another that they could throw a tennis ball and hit the other's apartment, are busy keeping their teammates focused on the here and now.
"Last year, I thought we had an unbelievable team, but we just didn't come together like we have with this team," Arconada said. "I'm looking at this year right now."
Douglas Pils, class of 1992, is general manager of the Texas A&M Student Media Department.
It's a real pleasure for us to do this, because I think back about all the support Aggies have given me. No one accomplishes everything in life by themselves, and A&M and the Aggie network have definitely been there for me throughout my life."