The University of Utah men’s tennis team is halfway through its season as the team continues to adjust to life in its second full season in one of the best college tennis conferences in the nation. And with a Hall of Fame coach, the players believe their heights can be unmatched.
The team shows youth and diversity.
With 10 players on the roster, only two of them are from the United States and only one is from Utah. There are only four upperclassmen — just one senior — with six underclassmen.
Hall of Fame coach F.D. Robbins may have his hands full in his 27th season.
Robbins is a former Ute two-time All-American tennis player from the 1970s and graduated from the University of Utah in 1972. He played the number one singles position his entire college career. Robbins won the National Intercollegiate Indoor Championship in his run and reached the NCAA Tournament Quarterfinals in 1970.
Robbins went on to the pro circuit in his playing days. He was ranked as high as the 20th singles player and as high as 10th in doubles matches in his pro career. Robbins played in the U.S. Open three times and holds the record for the longest U.S. Open match in its history — needing 100 games to defeat Dick Dell in 1970.
Robbins is a member of the Utah Tennis Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame with the class of 2002. He will be inducted into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame on April 22 at the Hilton Salt Lake Center at 6 p.m., along with former Ute basketball standout Michael Doleac and coach Rick Majerus.
When asked what it means to be honored with this induction, Robbins said, “It means I’m a Ute guy. I’m excited about that and appreciate them considering me for that.”
Robbins' father used to take him as a youngster to the old Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse to watch the Utes play basketball and to the old football stadium as well.
He said from those experiences, “I’ve always been a Ute at heart.”
Robbins continued his success as he returned to coach his alma mater in tennis and has done so for 27 straight seasons. He has achieved four conference championships — three in the WAC and one in the MWC. The latter was his most recent in 2008.
Robbins has led his teams to the NCAA tournament nine times and has received the school's Don Reddish Award twice. The award goes out annually to the top non-football and non-basketball coaches.
To see how much the program has developed under Robbins, his top player this year, Ukraine senior Dmytro Mamedov, didn’t even see the court his entire freshman season.
Mamedov’s play has led to a 14-7 singles record this year.
With the move to the Pac-12 conference, Robbins says the quality of competition has vastly improved and that he invites it.
“The conference changed, everything’s kind of changed, but I’m pretty excited about being in the Pac-12 conference. I think all the spring sports have a tough situation, but it’s an excited situation,” Robbins said. “But we do have to recruit better players here now, and we need the guys to play the guy across the net, not USC across the net, not their history, just the guy on that day.”
With the addition into the Pac-12, the Utes' tennis team is already seeing dividends with the announcement last May that the athletics department plans to build a new outdoor tennis stadium adjacent to the George S. Eccles Indoor Tennis Center. The groundbreaking for the $2 million project is expected to take place this summer and take about five months to complete.
While there are only eight Pac-12 schools that are involved with men’s tennis, it is still one of the strongest conferences in the nation.
The conference currently has four ranked teams inside the top 25 — No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 USC, No. 24 Cal and No. 25 Washington. The Utes currently are 7-3 while sitting in fifth place.
The team started off the season by going 7-1 at home before a couple of stumbles the past two weeks on the road at BYU and Boise State.
“So far we’ve started off pretty good, we’ve hit a rough patch our past couple matches, but we’ve been having some good practices lately and we have some tough matches coming up this weekend in California, so hopefully we can perform well there and get some good results,” said junior Devin Lane.
The Utes will be playing San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara and UC Irvine throughout the next week on the road.
Lane is the lone player from Utah and graduated from Highland High School. His mother got him started on playing tennis when he was 5 years old.
When asked what his attraction to tennis was, Lane replied, “I liked how it was a single person sport, it's fun to control everything I do. I just like the real competitive nature of the sport.”
Lane eventually started taking classes at Coach Mike’s Tennis Academy as a youngster and has been playing ever since.
Representing the Utes as the hometown kid and lone Utahn doesn’t seem to faze Lane any.
“It makes it more fun, I don’t feel like there’s any added pressure. It’s nice to have a bunch of people that know me around here, which creates a better fan base,” he added.
Lane, a junior, has an overall singles record of 11-6 for one of the better records on the team.
Where he has really soared, though, is in doubles matches this year with his sophomore teammate from Africa, Slim Hamza. Their jelling together has earned them the top duo on the team with an overall record of 12-4.
Another player on the team, junior team captain Alejandro Medinilla, found tennis in an interesting way.
Medinilla played soccer all his young life growing up in Mexico City. He would play at a local club with his friends almost every day. In between breaks from soccer he and his friends would use their resting time to play on a tennis court nearby. When he was 12 years old, his dad asked him if he wanted to take some tennis lessons. That started Medinilla on a worldwide trail of tournaments throughout his teenage years.
Medinilla’s family still lives in Mexico City but was able to come in January to visit and watch him play. He has excelled in his singles matches with a 14-4 overall record, with an 8-1 record in dual match play.
“Sometimes in a match my emotions just take over and that’s when I crash, but I’m trying to be more disciplined inside the court and stay calm,” Medinilla says. “I think a lot about all that work I’ve put in on the court during practice, in the gym, and running, during the match, and that pushes me through tough situations.”
Medinilla said he loves having Robbins as his coach, knowing that he has played in the pros and knows what it takes to be great.
“It gives me confidence knowing what he tells me is right, because he’s done it. It’s a big support. It pushes and motivates you to know you have someone who knows their stuff behind you,” said Medinilla.
The team will begin Pac-12 play at the end of March with trips to No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 USC. The team still feels it needs to continually improve up until conference play begins. It will be playing enough ranked teams inside of conference play to get itself into the rankings as well, but only with victories. The Pac-12 tournament will start in late April.
“All we can do is work as hard as we can, you still have to hit the little yellow ball over the net in the end, doesn’t matter who you play, that’s our goal just to compete, and we’ve told our guys all we expect is that they’ll fight, and if everybody fights hard, it gives yourself a chance,” said Robbins.