By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – A new era began in 2017 for the University of Virginia’s tennis programs. Late that May, Andres Pedroso was named director of tennis – a new position at UVA – as well as head coach of the men’s team. About three weeks later, Sara O’Leary was hired as head coach of the women’s team.
O’Leary came to Virginia from Davidson, where she’d been head coach for three seasons. Pedroso already knew his way around Grounds. He’d been Brian Boland’s associate head coach at UVA from 2010-14.
In 2017, Pedroso took over a men’s program that was coming off its third straight NCAA team title (and fourth overall). In a recent interview with VirginiaSports.com, he discussed a variety of topics.
For both programs, 2017-18 was something of a rebuilding year, with each advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Today, the UVA men are ranked fourth and the women 14th nationally. Are you pleased with the direction of each program?
AP: “Yes. I think both teams learned a lot from last year, and we grew a lot, and we came into this year with a lot of important lessons. On top of that, we brought in some great first-years that have helped us out a lot. So in the end, I really think that both programs are on the right track. We’re constantly collaborating and exchanging ideas to make sure that we’re getting better and helping each other. I think the future is bright for both teams.”
This is only the second year UVA has had a director of tennis overseeing both programs. How often do you interact with the women’s team?
“I talk to Sara and [assistant coach] Gina [Suarez-Malaguti] on a daily basis, and we’re constantly talking about practices, talking about our matches. For example, they’ve really helped us a lot in doubles. They’ve given us some new drills and some new games to get the guys to do different things on the court that we weren’t doing before. It’s examples like that of where we help each other. And there’s no egos. Everyone’s just looking for good information, and we’re happy to share it.
“With the players, I’m there for them for whatever they need. Sara and Gina do an unbelievable job, so I try not to get in the middle of it, but I’m always around if they ever need me, and sometimes they will come over and I’ll step on the court and help them with an exercise or something.”
A new outdoor tennis complex is planned at a site adjacent to the Boar’s Head Sports Club. Currently, UVA’s teams play outdoors at the Sheridan Snyder Tennis Center and indoors at the Boar’s Head, and you have offices in the McCue Center and locker rooms in the Lady Astor building next to the Snyder Center, all of which poses logistical challenges for players, coaches and staffers. The new outdoor courts might be ready by the spring of 2020. What will be the impact of this project?
AP: “It just makes things more efficient, more productive, because everyone’s going to be in one place. Players are going to be able to train, get coached, study and do their strength and conditioning, and their physiotherapy and their nutrition. So it’s going to be a lot more convenient, and any time you save time and you can be more efficient with your time, it’s going to save energy and reduce injury and reduce sickness. And so I think this is going to be a game-changer for us, and also for recruiting. It’s going to be a beautiful place, and it’s going to be a unique facility, and I think anyone that sees it is going to appreciate it.”
Your men’s team has a 9-2 record in dual matches and is coming off a strong showing at the ITA National Team Indoors in Chicago, where it beat Stanford and Southern California and lost to eventual champion Ohio State. What were your takeaways from that tournament?
AP: “I was happy with it, because we left nothing on the court in all three matches, and the only expectation I ever have for the guys is for them to go out there and do their absolute best. And I think we learned some things in doubles, that we need to play more offensively and go after people more. So I think you’re going to see a lot more of that from our guys in doubles.
“Singles-wise, I think we’re one of the best teams in the country, and doubles-wise, we’re only getting better. I think the Stanford and the Ohio State matches were great experiences for us. Stanford came out hot, and really to be honest with you, they got on top of us quick, and it taught us that this is how we need to play doubles. We need to be more offensive. We need to go for our serves. We need to go for our second-serve returns. We need to be getting closer to the net after our partners make their returns and their first serves. It’s a little bit more of a kamikaze type of mindset out there. And we did that against Ohio State – we came a couple points away from winning the doubles point against them – and we did it against USC.”
Scott Brown is in his second year as your assistant coach, and Brian Rasmussen joined the men’s program as a volunteer assistant in the fall of 2018. What’s the dynamic on your coaching staff?
AP: “I’m the luckiest head coach in the world to have them on board. They’re extremely knowledgeable, extremely passionate. This is not a job to them. This is a lifestyle. They meet more than halfway as far as work ethic goes, and they’ve built great relationships with the players. They’re great match coaches, too. I don’t need to micromanage these guys in the middle of matches. I don’t need to be running around at all the courts and saying, ‘Oh, you gotta do this and that.’ These guys have full control of their courts. They understand the players. They understand the moment. They feel comfortable there, and they do a great job.”
The men’s team is in the midst of an interesting stretch of its schedule. Your next dual match is not until March 10, when you play at South Florida. What led you to set up the schedule this way?
AP: “If you look at the way the top pros in the world train, they usually bake in these training blocks two or three times a year, and Scott, Brian and I decided to do the same thing in the middle of the season, right after the indoor season. We wanted to give ourselves a little more than two-and-a-half weeks where we can really push the guys physically and work on specifics that we found on the doubles court and the singles court. Usually the pros do this after the Miami Open, right before the red-clay court season. They do it right before the U.S. hardcourt season after Wimbledon, and then they do it again in November when the indoor season is over and they’re getting ready for Australia. We’re trying to give our players as much of a pro training experience as possible, and little training blocks like this I think make a big difference and help us get better.”
What have your two seniors, Aswin Lizen and Henrik Wiersholm, meant for the program, on and the court?
AP: “They’ve been great leaders. They lead by example. They just come to work every single day, and they just hit the bench marks of work ethic, professionalism and camaraderie every single day when they walk on the court. And you know that when you put them on the court to play a match in doubles or singles, they’re going to leave it all out there. And the guys look up them. And they’re not just great tennis players. They’re great students and they’re great human beings, and they’ve helped us continue that great culture that’s been here for over a decade. That’s the beauty of the leadership here within our program. That culture just keeps on getting passed on from year to year.”
One of your most talented players is freshman Brandon Nakashima, who enrolled UVA in last month. How’d you win the recruiting battle for him?
AP: “Everybody thought that Brandon was going to stay in California, because he’s from San Diego, and usually the kids from California stay there. But we’ve had luck with players such as J.C. Aragone, Collin Altamirano, Rylan Rizza, Doug Stewart. In the past, if California kids have come and visited Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, they’ve seen that it’s a special place. And I think when Brandon came on his visit with his mom, they saw the way we train, the way we treat the players, our approach to the whole [student-athlete] experience, and I think they appreciated that. Also Brandon has always surrounded himself with the very best training and the very best coaching. I’m not saying we’re the best coaches, but I think we’re really fully invested in that. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are way more important to me than [the matches on] Friday and Sunday. I think on Friday and Sunday, we support the players, but our main job is to get them ready for that weekend.”
It’s not easy for a student-athlete to enter UVA midyear and have immediate success, as Brandon has done. What’s made that possible for him?
AP: “He’s got great discipline, and that’s just not on the court. It’s in the classroom. I wouldn’t have asked him if January was an option for him if I didn’t think he could handle it. This is a kid that just works. He gets great grades. He works hard on the court. He takes care of his body. He’s connecting all the dots. The January transition is tough for most kids, but for Brandon I knew that he would come in and he wouldn’t skip a beat, and that’s what he’s done.”
Another one of your standouts is Carl Soderlund, a junior from Stockholm, Sweden, who’s played Nos. 1 and 2 singles. What’s made Carl so successful?
AP: “Carl, like Brandon, is a true professional on and off the court. He just got selected to live on the Lawn next year, which is a huge honor, and I’m super proud of him for that. To live on the Lawn, you have to be a pretty special human being. Carl is an ultimate professional. When you walk on the court with him, if you don’t have a plan, he’s not a happy camper. You need to have a plan, and he wants things done purposefully, and he’s just a monster competitor. This is a guy that never goes away. It doesn’t matter what the score is. He’s going to figure out a way, and he’s constantly problem-solving. And that’s what makes him tough, along with the fact that he’s a great athlete and he’s got a lot of different things that he can do on the court. He’s got a lot of variety, kind of like an Andy Murray, so it’s really fun to watch him play.”
On Feb. 8, your team knocked off defending NCAA champion Wake Forest, which was then ranked No. 1 nationally, 5-2 at the Boar’s Head. What did that victory mean for the program?
AP: “It was definitely a confidence-booster. I remember two days before the match, I got the whole team together, and I made them aware of how special this group really is that we have on this team. They’re working super hard, they’re asking for extra work on specifics, they’re stretching, they’re really taking care of all the pieces to the puzzle that it takes to be successful. In my opinion, this is the hardest-working group that I’ve coached, and so I just made them aware of that, and I said, ‘Guys, if you keep this up, you’re going to put yourself in position to win against the best teams in the country. I really believe that.’ We had that talk two days before the match. And so when we won the match, I got them together again and I said, ‘Guys, don’t be shocked. This is who we are. We aren’t always going to win, but we’re going to be in positions to win matches.’ “