By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – When he arrived at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2016, the young Swede didn’t expect to stay long. One year, maybe two, Carl Soderlund figured, and then he’d leave to pursue a professional tennis career.
Funny how plans can change. Söderlund, who’s from Stockholm, Sweden, will be a fourth-year student at UVA in 2019-20, and not because he’s struggled on the court. He’s seeded No. 3 in the NCAA singles tournament, which begins May 20 in Orlando, Fla.
“The more time I spend at UVA, the more I love it and the more I just want to come back and spend more time here,” Söderlund said.
At the Hoos Choice show Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena, he and Jocelyn Willoughby received the ACC Scholar-Athlete awards for UVA.
Willoughby, a women’s basketball standout, is living on the Lawn this year. Söderlund is among the students who’ll have that honor in 2019-20. It’s believed he’ll be the first UVA men’s tennis player to live on the Lawn. He’s majoring in economics, with a minor in statistics.
“It’s just a great story, because he definitely earned it,” Virginia head coach Andres Pedroso said. “It didn’t come easy to him. He’s somebody that really put in the hours, and it’s not like he took easy, comfortable classes. He’s fully embraced and challenged himself in every way that UVA can challenge you as a student-athlete.”
On the Lawn, Söderlund’s neighbors will include Scott Beardsley, dean of UVA’s Darden School of Business, who lives with his family in Pavilion I. Beardsley, an accomplished tennis player himself, has “been a great mentor to our student-athletes on the team,” Pedroso said. “He’s always opened up his doors of his pavilion to the guys, just so they can enjoy it as much as he and his wife, Claire, love living there.”
The Beardsleys suggested to Söderlund that he consider applying for a room on the Lawn, he said, “and they got me in contact with a few people that live there right now, so I could get a look into how it actually is. The more I started thinking about it, the more it appealed to me.”
His experience at UVA has helped him grow and mature, Söderlund said. “I’ve learned how to accept different people, learned how to lead in a good way, not only yourself but to develop together and improve as a group. There’s so many things I’ve learned and so many things I’m going to learn.”
Söderlund was fluent in English when he arrived at UVA. Even so, he struggled at first to keep up academically.
“It was definitely challenging,” Söderlund said. “I remember the first four weeks I was here, the language was just so hard. I remember going into lectures and just not understanding anything. They were going through the material so fast.
“That was for sure a barrier, but I guess as with everything you do, you adapt to it and you just go from there.”
The 6-2 Söderlund’s transition to college tennis went more smoothly. During his first year at UVA, his head coach was Brian Boland, who’s now at Baylor. Söderlund, playing mainly No. 3 singles, posted a 15-3 record and helped the Wahoos capture the NCAA title.
In 2017-18, the Cavaliers’ first season under Pedroso, Söderlund played No. 1 singles and made the All-ACC first team. His record in singles this season is 19-4, and he was recently named ACC Player of the Year.
“He’s just been a rock for us at the number-one singles spot,” Pedroso said, “and he’s done it with class and he’s done it with integrity, and he’s done it with just a lot of hard work, which is what he’s all about.
“He’s probably the most purposeful practice player I’ve ever worked with, and he’s like that with everything in his life. When it comes to how he studies, when he studies, how much he studies, how much he sleeps, who he associates himself with, everything in his life has got a reason and a purpose behind it, and it’s because he’s so ambitious. He’s got high goals, and he knows time is of the essence, and he doesn’t want to waste any time.”
Technology helps Söderlund stay connected with his parents and his three sisters, all of whom live in Stockholm. His schedule allows him to return to Sweden twice a year.
“That’s the downside of being here, being away from your family, but that’s the [route] we took, and they enjoy seeing me playing over here,” Söderlund said. “They’re following all our results. I think they’re watching my watches on-line, even though it’s probably 3 a.m. in Sweden.”
As a boy, he also played soccer and ice hockey, but tennis was Söderlund’s best sport, and he dreamed of becoming the next Björn Borg. Not until he was older, though, did Söderlund realize the full extent of his countryman’s impact on the game.
“I saw him a couple of times growing up,” Söderlund said, “and my dad played him in a 45-and-under tournament. I remember winning a tournament that same day with the score 6-0, 6-0 in the final, and my dad lost to Björn 6-0, 6-0 in the final of their tournament, so that was kind of cool getting a picture with [Borg].”
Söderlund considered turning pro out of high school, but that would have been an expensive proposition, and his parents began researching options in the United States. After that, Söderlund said, “I started to look into it more and more, and it seemed really exciting.”
His coach in Stockholm at the time was close with Dustin Taylor, then a UVA assistant, “so I knew I was going to get good coaching if I came here,” Söderlund said.
He’s competed as an amateur in – and won – professional tournaments. At Virginia, he gets to be part of a team, and that’s enhanced his college experience.
“There’s a different environment playing college matches, which I greatly appreciate, because there’s just so much pressure put on you, because you’re not playing only for yourself,” Söderlund said. “We were playing in the [ACC tournament recently], and you look around at people in the stands and you see how much they care about your match and the program and if you win.
“Every time I play a college match it’s always fun. I don’t know what it is. It has to be the team aspect of it, because you have the preparation and the team huddle, you do the warmups together, you play the doubles, so there’s always fun coming into the team matches, whereas it’s not always fun being by yourself and then warming up and then going in and playing a match for yourself on the pro tour.”
Virginia, which lost in the NCAA tournament’s second round in 2018, is the No. 5 overall seed this year. At the Sheridan Snyder Tennis Center, UVA (21-4) hosts St. John’s (19-5) in a first-round match Friday at 1 p.m.
The winner will meet South Carolina (17-9) or East Tennessee State (20-4) in the second round Saturday at 1 p.m. South Carolina and ETSU play each other Friday at 10 a.m.
“The only thing we can expect is that everybody tries their best from today until the last ball we hit,” Söderlund said. “We have a great team, so I’m expecting us to have a good run. If we bring our best, we’re going to have a chance to beat everybody. It’s just going to come down to small details, and hopefully they will go in our favor.”