3 wins from a title, USC tennis believes it belongs on this stage
The voice — the booming, roaring, resonant voice — of South Carolina women’s tennis is also the travel guide, uniform organizer and equipment keeper of South Carolina women’s tennis.
The latter three descriptions are requirements typical of any director of operations for a Division I program. These types are crucial behind-the-scenes pieces who handle daily duties so coaches can keep their focus on wins and player development.
The Gamecocks have won 23 times in 2019. On Friday, they have an NCAA tournament quarterfinal match with Duke in Orlando. On Sunday, they could play for a national championship.
Notable USC noisemakers this season have been Kevin Epley (SEC Coach of the Year), Ingrid Martins (SEC Player of the Year), Mia Horvit (All-SEC first team) ... and Arul Sriram. Perhaps the nation’s loudest ops director, Sriram is different from most in his position. He rocks a 2-year-old beard and brings a signature kind of encouragement to each match.
“I can hear him all the way from the Rice Building,” Horvit said. “Wherever he is, everyone can hear him. It’s great. It brings the energy. So it just hypes us up even more.”
“He’s known nationally for that,” Epley said. “Everyone talks about Arul. You can go out to California, they’ll talk about Arul.”
“In the beginning,” said Martins, a senior, “I was like, ‘What is this man doing?’ But then, I was like, ‘He just wants our best.’ He’s gonna be there every time. Even if he’s not there on the court yelling, he’s just big energy and we love that.”
On Monday, the man who had “Let’s go Gamecocks!” echoing through USC’s win over Southern Cal 48 hours earlier, turned into a reserved interview subject for The State. This is Sriram’s normal tone, he said.
“The reason I’m soft-spoken here,” Sriram said in the film room of the Carolina Tennis Center, “is I don’t want to take credit for stuff. This team provides me a heartbeat. You don’t get the opportunity to do this often and I feel very blessed in the fact that somehow I was put in the position to be here. I get to watch kids grow, I get to watch kids succeed, I get to watch a lot of stuff that you don’t get to do.”
What he’s watched the last six years is the continued success of South Carolina tennis. The women’s program has now made 25 straight NCAA tournaments. But what Sriram watched before that was heart-wrenching and sometimes graphic.
Sriram, 36, was a firefighter and paramedic in Indiana before following his parents to Columbia, enrolling at USC and beginning a whole new career.
“My biggest thing was I wanted to go to school to become a doctor,” Sriram said. “That was like my biggest goal in life. Found the stress of that a little too much.”
Sriram’s phone was down to 30 percent battery by 2 Monday afternoon. He spent most of the morning dealing with a last-minute hotel switch for USC in Orlando. It was annoying, sure, but Sriram wasn’t overwhelmed. He made the proper adjustments so the Gamecocks could live comfortably in their quest of a championship.
“A lot of it’s a voice game,” Sriram said. “How you treat people is how they’re gonna treat you back. You can be the most stressed-out person in the world, but if you’re convincing on the phone, they’re gonna help you out. You have to let them know that it’s not their fault and you gotta be able to work through it.”
Sriram is so cool in these moments because he’s been trained for them. He’s carried kittens out of a burning building, he’s brought people back to life after a heart attack, he’s been in the same room as a mother after her daughter hung herself from the bannister.
“There’s been the very happy moments, there’s been the very down moments,” Sriram said. “The happy stuff, you see it and you remember a lot of them. But for me, it’s weird because the negative ones stick out a little bit more just because they didn’t traumatize you, but they put into perspective what life truly is at that point in time.”
He was 21 when he was on the suicide scene. Fifteen years later, in midst of assisting a title run, the images haven’t gone away.
“It was the first time I had seen a young life taken like that,” Sriram said.
Following the win over Southern Cal last weekend, Gamecock players lined up to hug Sriram as part of their celebration. Epley calls him the “heart and soul” of this team. Martins said Sriram has a “big influence” on Carolina’s success.
Sriram was seeking less stress in his second career. What he’s found is just another platform for passion.
“I just told myself I wanted to be happy going into work every day,” Sriram said. “I found the adrenaline rush on the emergency side, but here it’s in a different form. It’s in the way of wins.”
Noon: No. 2 North Carolina vs. No. 7 UCLA
2 pm: No. 3 Stanford vs. No. 6 Pepperdine
5 pm: No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 8 Vanderbilt
7 pm: No. 4 South Carolina vs. No. 5 Duke (televised on the Tennis Channel)
2 and 6 pm: Semifinals
5 pm: National championship