Inside the University of Utah’s George S. Eccles Tennis Center on a snowy day in April 2004, senior Roeland Brateanu faced off for his final home tennis match against Air Force’s Shannon Buck, one of the best players in the country. Brateanu had butterflies, but his coach, F.D. Robbins, as usual was calm. Robbins had helped Brateanu put together a strategy for the match, yet even with all that careful planning, the U player was still a bit nervous. Five of the six singles matches, including Brateanu’s, went three sets that day. Playing at No. 1, Brateanu and Buck were tied 6-6 in the final set. Each player had close line calls as they traded point for point, until Brateanu finally handed Buck one of the few losses (4-6, 6-3, 7-6) of Buck’s collegiate career.
Brateanu BS’04 calls it one of his finest matches ever—and one of the keys to winning that day, he recalls now, was Coach Robbins BS’73, who during his 28 years as the U’s head coach led the men’s tennis program to a 364-345 record. “He was always so calm and collected,” Brateanu says. “That helped me out as a player tremendously. Even when the match came down to a tiebreaker, to be that calm and that focused on what needed to be done and sticking to strategy—that was Coach Robbins. He was not a rah-rah kind of guy. He kept things simple, and that’s what really helped me through the match.”
Robbins announced his retirement last May, and Brateanu (pronounced brat-ee-AH-new), who had been an assistant coach under Robbins for seven years, took over as head coach of a program with a long, rich history as well as a new and different landscape of competition with the University’s entry into the Pac-12 in 2011. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Arthur Ashe were all products of the Pac-12, which has produced 55 of 70 NCAA team championships. Today, the U team is well situated to face that competition. The indoor eight-court, 1,500-seat Eccles Tennis Center is considered a premier collegiate facility in the country and recently added a players’ lounge for the men’s and women’s teams. “It allows us to train year-round, and that’s key,” Brateanu says. Entry into the Pac-12 also ushered in a new $2 million outdoor tennis complex with six courts and elevated seating for up to 500 spectators, and it is expected to open this year, giving players top-notch facilities for indoor and outdoor play.
What’s more, Brateanu says, entry into the Pac-12 has brought the University access to athletes who might not have otherwise looked at the U men’s tennis program: players who expect the kind of training and experience that will give them the most opportunities to develop into professionals.
The current men’s tennis program had its beginnings back in 1910, when the University of Utah Tennis Club was first organized. One of the early notable Utah players was Wallace Stegner BA’30, who would go on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. In black and white photos from 1929 and 1930, he is pictured wearing the team uniform of white pants and a neatly pressed white shirt. David L. Freed BA’31 captained the U team in 1930-31. He went on to captain the U.S. Davis Cup Team in 1960 and 1961 and later was nationally ranked as a seniors’ circuit player, competing until he was 82 years old. Fans of Utah’s Lagoon amusement park might recall that Freed was its chairman for nearly half a century.
During the last century, Utah players have won an NCAA singles championship and 24 team conference championships, including four when Robbins was the team’s coach, and have gone on to set records at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
Since the 1960s, the U men’s tennis program has turned out a small crowd of All-Americans that includes Robbins, who as a U student and team member earned the honor twice, in 1969 and 1970. Utah’s program has seen 43 players earn 70 All-American honors in singles and doubles play since 1981. Jim Osborne BS’69 became Utah’s first All-American in 1965 and repeated in 1966. After his college career, Osborne succeeded on the pro tour as a doubles player, winning five Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) titles, and he was a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team.
He and two others from the University of Utah—Greg Holmes BS’95 and Harry James BS’55—have been enshrined in the U.S. Tennis Association (ITA – Intermountain Section) Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame in Athens, Georgia. Holmes was the NCAA Singles Champion in 1983, when he was the last player to win the title using a wooden racquet. He went on to a successful professional career that included competing in the U.S. Open, and he reached as high as No. 22 in the world, with wins over Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi. At Wimbledon in 1989, Holmes set the record for the longest match played there, at five hours and 28 minutes. The record held until the John Isner-Nicolas Mahut match in 2010 stretched over 11 hours, five minutes of play during the course of three days.
A graduate of Salt Lake City’s East High School, James had achieved ranked-player status as a promising junior tennis player when he was stricken with polio while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. Thereafter confined to a wheelchair, he went on to obtain a journalism degree at the University of Utah, became the U’s sports information director, and eventually had a stellar career as the head coach of the U men’s tennis team from 1961 to 1986. Under his leadership, the Utes won 10 conference championships and included 11 All-Americans.
James took Robbins under his wing as assistant coach for part of that tenure, and Robbins succeeded James as head coach. Robbins now recalls that James was like a “second dad” to him. After his successful college run as a two-time All-American, Robbins had gone on to a pro career and was once ranked 20th in the nation in singles play, beating well-known names including Dick Stockton and Tom Gorman. In 1970, Robbins earned the unique distinction of playing the longest U.S. Open singles game ever (more than 100 games) to beat Dick Dell. And as the U’s head coach, Robbins twice received the Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year award, in 1989 and 1990.
After the U’s 2011 entry into the Pac-12, Robbins led the Utes to three winning seasons, including coaching current player Slim Hamza of Tunisia to a Pac-12 All-Conference singles award in 2012. (Hamza injured his knee this past fall and took a break from tennis, but he was at “100 percent” by the team’s first practice in early January this year.) “I love to coach,” Robbins says. “The fun part is trying to teach young adults and turn them into men. Athletics is a great training ground for life after athletics. You have to be competitive, to have integrity, and to make good decisions.”
These days, Robbins is still on the court as a teaching pro at the U’s Eccles Tennis Center. As a coach and as a teacher, he relishes helping players practice. “I just love to get out and try to make the guys better,” he says. “The match is the carrot at the end of the stick.” Even so, among his fondest memories is the Utes’ victory over Brigham Young University in 2008 during a three-day stretch on their turf to clinch Utah’s 24th conference title. “How much better does it get than to win the conference championship and beat BYU down in Provo?” he says.
As Robbins mentored Brateanu, that BYU victory would be one of many reminders of a kind of wisdom that comes with time. The 2008 win came during Brateanu’s first year as an assistant under Robbins. Brateanu says that Robbins had so much experience as a player and coach that nothing seemed to rattle him, and his even keel rubbed off on his players. “He’s taught me things on and off the court,” Brateanu says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. I owe him a lot.”
Brateanu’s path to the head coach job at Utah started in Amsterdam, where he grew up. After soccer, he notes, tennis is the most popular sport in the Netherlands. He started out at about age 3 with a Mickey Mouse racquet, constantly swinging it around the house. His father coached for a tennis club, and the son played several sports before picking his favorite. “Tennis was a sport that stuck out,” he says. “I really love team sports, and for that reason, I love the college tennis environment. It’s challenging. It’s very technical and tactical. I think it has a little bit of everything.”
Brateanu played for two years at University of Arizona near the bottom of the lineup before finding a “great fit” with an offensive-minded coach in Robbins and transferring to Utah. “It was the best move of my life,” Brateanu says. He won multiple awards as a player at Utah, and after graduation, went to work leading strength and conditioning clinics for high school athletes. In 2006, he moved to Guatemala to privately coach two junior tennis players to No. 1 positions in their age groups. He also was on the coaching staff for the Guatemala Fed Cup team while advising the Guatemalan Tennis Federation and Guatemalan Olympic Committee. He moved back to Utah in 2008 to be assistant coach under Robbins.
The current crop of Utah players has seen the head coaching position change from experience that predates their births to a leader who not that long ago was in their shoes. “He’s young,” says Cedric Willems, a Dutch national who transferred to Utah from Clemson University and started at the U under Robbins. “And he understands the game very well.” Willems was recruited by other schools, but Brateanu gave him a “good feeling” about the way the then assistant coach approached tennis and wanted to help players reach their goals, which for some like Willems is to continue competitively after college.
Willems says he likes how the coaching staff tries to emulate the current successful practice and training techniques of top pro players. Those techniques involve a more “scientific” approach to strength and conditioning, focusing on muscle groups and areas such as the shoulders, ankles, and knees that are challenged in tennis. Willems says the team has all the resources it needs to be “great,” including access to the 17,000-squarefoot Alex Smith Strength and Conditioning Center, which opened in 2009 at a cost of $1.5 million, as well as the Eccles Tennis Center and the new outdoor tennis complex opening this year. Brateanu notes that the outdoor facility will provide the team with the options of both indoor and outdoor play, “an advantage we have over other schools in the Pac-12.” Only Washington and Oregon have both indoor and outdoor courts. Robbins says that no longer having to play outdoor matches off campus is key to moving forward. “I think the outdoor courts will make a big impact as far as the ability to recruit,” he says. “It has already made a difference in the guys signed for next year.”
Brateanu says Utah will continue recruiting within state first and then will expand its reach nationally and internationally as the U and other teams in the Pac-12 compete for the best of the best. “Players have gotten fitter, stronger, and faster,” he says. Being in the Pac-12 and landing successful recruits also means focusing more than ever on the latest research and techniques in athletic training, injury prevention, peak nutrition, and sports psychology, along with constant monitoring of players’ academic progress.
One of Brateanu’s goals as a new head coach is to draw bigger audiences to matches at the University of Utah. “The number one thing is winning,” he says. “When you’re playing better teams and you have good players, you will draw bigger crowds.” Beyond that, it takes getting the team and the brand out into the community more, serving others, and spreading the word about men’s tennis at Utah, he says. “The future is bright. That’s what we keep telling our recruits.” Robbins, his mentor and the U’s longtime coach, helped lay the foundation for just such a future, Brateanu says. “I can only hope that I am going to be here as long as he was and be as successful.”
—Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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