April 28, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- The message hanging from Greg Van Emburgh’s office wall is simple and to the point.
“Attitude is everything.’’
You can safely assume Van Emburgh will deliver his own personal message to his UW men’s tennis players before the Badgers take on Penn State in Thursday’s opening round of the Big Ten tournament.
“You want to be loose and aggressive,’’ Van Emburgh will instruct them. “Take the pressure off yourself. Be loose and aggressive. Go out there, have fun, enjoy it. Compete hard.’’
The key is to avoid falling into the proverbial “mental’’ trap.
“From making it a personal battle with yourself,’’ he said.
It all keeps coming back to the basics for Van Emburgh, 44, a native of Naples, Fla.
“Compete your butt off,’’ he emphasized. “At the end of the day that’s the most important thing because in hindsight the worst thing that can happen to you is that you lose a tennis match.’’
A year ago, the Badgers reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. By contrast, this has been a rebuilding year because of the youth and inexperience.
“Coming into this year,’’ Van Emburgh said, “I knew we’d be young and we’d be vulnerable.’’
But he’s seen his players mature and gain valuable experience since the start of the season. Considering how far the Badgers have come, he only wishes that he could turn back the clock.
“Where we are now in April,’’ he said, “I kind of wish we were in maybe February.’’
Van Emburgh likes his team’s draw and attitude. And he likes the fact that the Big Ten event is being staged Thursday through Sunday on campus at the Nielsen Tennis Stadium.
“We’ve been playing well; we’re improving,’’ he said. Was there any way he could have accelerated the growth of his players?
“You really couldn’t,’’ he said. “The guys have to gain that knowledge. They have to be in the fire. They have to understand what college tennis is all about. It’s totally different.’’
Van Emburgh is a teacher; a skill that has helped in transitioning from one season to the next.
“The year we had last year,’’ he said, “was a great way to let recruits know what we’ve been able to accomplish with our program and how far we’ve been able to come.’’
Whereas maybe last year he didn’t have to coach as much because the players were more conscious of what it took to be successful, he said, “This team you want to try and coach a little more.’’
As a former college player, who spent 10 years on the ATP tour, Van Emburgh said, “I feel I can help the guys not only strategically but also to improve their strengths and develop their weaknesses.’’
That’s all coming from someone who competed in 38 grand slam events.
“The experience and knowledge you gain over those years (as a pro) has really helped,’’ he said, “to understand and support your players as to what they’re thinking on the court in critical situations.’’
The greatest lesson he has learned is, “When to coach and when not to coach.’’
The Badgers have only one senior on the roster. But he’s also their best player. Marek Michalicka has posted an 8-2 record against Big Ten competition. He’s 4-6 against ranked opponents.
“He’s our leader and team captain,’’ Van Emburgh said of Michalicka, who hails from the Czech Republic and is currently the No. 57-ranked singles player in the nation. “He’s been a great ambassador for our program both on and off the court.’’
Van Emburgh called him “special’’ – a player that doesn’t come around very often.
You can only imagine what Michalicka is going through during this rebuilding phase. “I’m sure it hurts deep down inside,’’ Van Emburgh said. “But he’s so unselfish, he’s just worried about the team.’’
And how good the Badgers can still become before the year is out.
"I think we have a lot of tennis left," Van Emburgh said.