By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Unbeknownst to most first-year students at UVa, their class includes an athlete who can be called, without hyperbole, a phenom.
If Alex Domijan had accomplished on the basketball court or football field what he has on the tennis court, thousands of people across the country, maybe millions, would recognize his name.
For now, his profile outside tennis circles remains low, but that’s likely to change.
In Tulsa, Okla., early this month, the 6-7 Domijan did what only two other college freshmen have done in the 32-year history of the ITA All-American Championships: He won the singles title.
In the round of 16, Domijan destroyed Duke’s Henrique Cunha, the second seed, 6-2, 6-1. Cunha happens to be the reigning ACC player of the year.
“After that match I felt really confident in myself, that I could definitely be good at this level,” said Domijan, who as a junior player had been ranked No. 1 nationally in nearly age group.
The next day in Tulsa, Domijan whipped Florida’s Alex Lacroix, the No. 9 seed, 6-3, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. Then he ousted Stanford’s Bradley Klahn, the No. 3 seed, 7-5, 6-4. Klahn happens to be the reigning NCAA singles champion.
In the final, Domijan rallied to beat Kentucky’s Eric Quigley, the No. 8 seed, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
“Certainly I think he gained confidence throughout the tournament, particularly getting through the first couple of rounds the way he did,” UVa coach Brian Boland said. “I think that gave him an awful lot of confidence, and he kind of carried that through the tournament. Then when he struggled in certain matches, he was able to kind of deal with the peaks and valleys that come with that.”
His performance in Tulsa stamped Domijan as a legitimate contender for the NCAA singles title in the spring.
“I think there’s no doubt about that,” Boland said, “but again, our focus with Alex is not on that, it’s on the goal, which is to come out every day and become a better tennis player … and he’s so dedicated to that cause. He has absolute control over that, but I know a lot of people will create hype around the fact that he’s a contender, which he’s already proven that he is. But that’s certainly not our focus with Alex.”
Domijan’s strengths as a player? “He’s extremely mature on the court in terms of his attitude, and then he has a big serve and a big forehand,” Boland said. “And he’s solid off both sides off the ground.”
At this time last year, Domijan was a senior at Saddlebrook Academy in Wesley Chapel, Fla., a school whose students are aspiring tennis players or golfers, and there was no guarantee he would ever play college tennis.
Domijan, 19, seriously considered turning pro out of high school. In the end, though, he wasn’t satisfied with his play in the professional tournaments in which he competed as an amateur. He visited Georgia and UVa, and the choice was easy for him.
“I liked Virginia a lot better,” said Domijan, who was impressed with the University’s academic reputation, as well as with Boland and his players.
And so the Wahoos added a coveted recruit who may help them reach the goal that has eluded them: the NCAA team title.
Domijan joined a well-stocked program. From a team that finished 39-2 after losing to eventual champion Southern California in the NCAA semifinals last spring, UVa returned its top four players: Michael Shabaz, Sanam Singh, Jarmere Jenkins and Drew Courtney.
“It would be special if we could do it,” Domijan said. “Obviously, it would probably mean a lot more to Sanam and Michael, because they’re both seniors and they’ve come really close a couple times. You also want to do it for them.”
Courtney and Shabaz are the reigning NCAA doubles champions, and they teamed to win the ITA All-American title in Tulsa.
“I think really picked up where they left off last spring when they won the NCAA championship,” Boland said. “They worked really hard over the summer, and they had some opportunities that they really took advantage of in terms of being able to play in the Legg Mason [Tennis Class in D.C.], where they had a great match with the Bryan brothers, which gave them an awful lot of confidence that they could compete with anybody in the world.
“And then they followed that up with an opportunity to play in the U.S. Open, where they played against a team that has played at the highest level and been top-5 in the world and been part of Grand Slam championships and so on.”
The first freshman to win the ITA All-American singles title was Stanford’s Scott Davis in 1980. Another Stanford player, Ryan Wolters, matched that feat in ’95.
Domijan said he “didn’t have results-based goals heading into [the tourney]. I think when you get on the pro tour, it’s results-based, just because you’re trying to make a living. Here, from the beginning of the school year, I’ve been really trying to get a lot better, trying to work on things that I really didn’t have before. I felt like that helped me win the tournament.”
Where Domijan will play in Virginia’s singles lineup in the spring has yet to be determined, but Boland is not worried about team chemistry.
“I think one of the things that makes it easier for his teammates, to be honest, is that Alex is a truly humble young man,” Boland said. “He doesn’t boast about himself. He just goes out and he works hard with a professional attitude every day.
“Everybody wants to be around him on and off the court, and he’s just a wonderful young man who really has embraced the University of Virginia and everything it has to offer, both in terms of a tennis program and an institution. We’re just pleased that he’s here and part of our program and look forward to working with him moving forward.”
The lineup is “a wide-open thing, and I’m sure that there will be a lot of movement throughout the year based on who’s playing the best at the time,” Boland said. “But it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I think if the guys really just focus on what we can control — that is, going out every day, working hard, getting better, coming together individually and collectively as a team — it’s going to be a really enjoyable journey, and I have no doubt they’ll embrace that kind of approach.”
Next up for Domijan is the ITA national individual indoors tournament, which starts Nov. 4 at Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
Five Cavaliers — Domijan, Shabaz, Singh, Courtney and Jenkins — qualified for the singles championships. Two UVa teams (Courtney/Shabaz and Domijan/Jenkins) will compete in the doubles tourney.
The NCAA tournaments are in the spring. Between now and then, Domijan will experience his first winter outside the Sunshine State, and this native of Gainesville, Fla., is looking forward to the cold.
“I’m tired of the warm summers [in Florida], too,” Domijan said with a smile.
UVa announced Domijan’s signing in early June. The news release included a statement from Domijan, part of which said that his “goal is to become a top ATP tour professional in the near future.”
Does that mean next year? 2012? 2013?
It’s too early to say, according to Domijan.
“I was always going to take it year by year, see where I am after this year ends,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go, and I’ll take it from there.”
For now, he’s enjoying college life, on and off the court. Domijan lives in the “Old Dorms” at UVa with Justin Shane, another talented first-year tennis player, and blends into the student body as well as any 6-7 person can.
“He’s really embraced the opportunity to be at the University of Virginia,” Boland said, “and we’re certainly proud to have him.”