The 18th-ranked North Carolina men's tennis team opens the 2013 dual match season Saturday with a doubleheader at Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center against Wofford and Gardner-Webb.
UNC Associate Athletic Communications Director Dave Lohse sat down Wednesday with Tar Heel head coach Sam Paul as Carolina prepares for the openers on Saturday. UNC will meet Wofford at 10 a.m. and Gardner-Webb at 5 p.m. as Coach Paul begins his 20th year at the helm of the Tar Heel ship.
UNC Athletic Communications: What is it that makes this team special relative to teams in the past?
Head Coach Sam Paul: One, they've great job academically. That relates to discipline and hard work. That's the fundamental basis of being a good team. This has been a fun group to be around. I know that Tripp and I have enjoyed coaching this team. Certainly, we've had a lot of personnel turnover since last year but our veterans have been focused and it's always exciting to help new kids in your program improve and mature as both tennis players and student-athletes.
Certainly, we will have our challenges. This will be a very demanding schedule that our kids will face. But in the long run, I think playing a good non-conference schedule always helps us. While we may not have as many players as we'd like with significant collegiate experience, I still think we have a chance to be successful. A lot will depend on the chemistry we develop over the next couple of months and staying healthy. I know our guys are ready for those challenges.
UNC Athletic Communications: What are the strengths of some of this year's newcomers?
Head Coach Sam Paul: Brett Clark had a very good fall as freshman and goes into the spring season ranked in the Top 60. He's got an all-around game. He's played well in singles and doubles. He's an all-court player. Maik Ulrich's arrival this spring gives us a strong left-handed presence on the team. It's always good to have a lefty. He's our first since Taylor Fogleman. He's a solid baseliner and will present challenges for our opponents. Nelson Vick had a great fall. Nelson is a great competitor and a hard worker. He's got an all-court game. He's a workhorse, a true warrior. Stuart DePaolo has a powerful groundstroke game. He's a bulldog, a tenacious competitor.
UNC Athletic Communications: What is it about this school and this program that's so unique?
Head Coach Sam Paul: Honestly, this school sells itself. North Carolina is such a great school academically that I think that's the first draw for recruits. If you look at our facilities, we've done really well with our facilities and we have great academic support.
Obviously, we have Tripp Phillips as our assistant coach and that is a major plus for our program. Tripp is a former player here who had a lot of success on the professional tour and is one of the best coaches in the country and I include both head coaches and assistant coaches in that group.
I would say the UNC tennis program offers the entire package: our facilities, our academics, our staff, the kind of schedule we play and everything else that helps a player prove himself as the best player he can possibly be - all those things can be found here in Chapel Hill. I think that's been true for decades and I think it continues to be true.
UNC Athletic Communications: How does your pro coaching experience and working with players who have gone on to have successful pro careers made you a better college coach?
Head Coach Sam Paul: I was very fortunate to be here when Don Johnson was training for 13 years and got to go to pro tournaments with him on a regular basis. That was a great educational experience for me as a head coach. To translate that back to the current players, I'm trying to get those players to reach that level. I am trying to get our current to understand they achieve at that level.
The more that you're seeing that level consistently, how hard they train, the top training techniques in the world, and you're constantly learning-it's just an invaluable teaching tool. Don came back after he graduated and decided he was going to go pro. He didn't have a great junior year in college when he changed from a two-handed to one-handed backhand and had about a .500 record playing No. 1 singles. Two years later, however, he's playing in the U.S. Open.
I watched his entire maturation in the pros from being happy to be in the U.S. Open to being seeded and having the expectation to win it. It's the same thing with Tripp Phillips. When he started out, he was nervous about being in the U.S. Open and then all of a sudden he's playing semifinal matches in Arthur Ashe Stadium. That's a big deal. I saw all of that, and that education-the pressure, the training, and the mental game-helped develop my coaching skills and philosophy.
Nick Monroe came to North Carolina in 2000 and honestly, at that point, he had limited junior tennis resume. But he knew Carolina was the place for him and through hard work and mental toughness he developed into an All-America and a Patterson Medal winner. Nick continued to train in Chapel Hill after he graduated and now, several years later, he's developed a game that has led to him being one of the top-ranked doubles players in the world.
When you look at the college careers of Johnson, Phillips and Monroe, you might not have suspected they would turn into the pro players they did. But all three had a common will to win at the highest level. It's exciting that I've now been privileged to coach players competing in Grand Slam events in three different decades.
UNC Athletic Communications: Players consistently describe you as competitive and passionate. How do those characteristics make you a more effective coach?
Head Coach Sam Paul: Well I think you've got to study the game, and study it every day. Why do I have a big screen TV here in my office? It's not just for my office but to help the players study their games, give them a convenient place to study video. I love the game of tennis, and I want to give them everything we possibly can while they're here. It's not always an easy sport to coach, so you're always looking for ways to make a bigger impact for your players. That's what has kept me in the sport-I've been coaching for 30 years now. I love helping our student-athletes and our players be the best possible people they can be.
UNC Athletic Communications: If the tennis coaching days at Carolina ever come to an end, what would you desire your legacy to be?
Head Coach Sam Paul: What I would say first is that the players and student-athletes had a great experience while they were here and wanted to come back and continue to be a part of the program. We've had lots of players go on to lead very successful lives, the majority of them not in tennis, but they always feel like they're part of the program. For example, I look at the eight seniors in the Class of 2008. They went to two Final 16s as players. Seven of those players graduated from Carolina with 3.0 grade point averages or better. As of today, all eight of them have a master's degree, are getting a master's degree or are in law school. When you look at those statistics, how much prouder could I be as a head coach? That group epitomizes what Carolina athletics is.
For example, 40 of my former players came to my wedding a few years ago, and I have a tremendous amount of pride that they always want to be a part of the program and come back. I think we can learn life lessons through our tennis program-how to be competitive, how to get knocked down and get back up, how to deal with adversity, how to be the best you can be, how you can have your own goals and then work and strive to reach those goals. All of those things are what I would say can have a real impact on people's lives. Those examples would be a great gift to me as my coaching legacy here.