Walking into the Georgia men’s tennis building, you’re greeted by three red numbers.
Mounted to the rarely touched white wall, the numbers are about 2 feet tall and indicate two different feats.
Thirty-six: the number of Southeastern Conference titles, regular season and tournament, the program has won in its 58 seasons.
Six: the number national titles its won. Two under former head coach Dan Magill and the remaining four collected by Manuel Diaz, who played and was an assistant under Magill.
The numbers are hung at about waist level on either side of a doorless doorway — the six on the left and the 36 on the right — that leads into the archive trophy room.
At the end of every season, a sports information director from Georgia’s athletic association curates the room, making note of what needs updating after another season on the courts.
The lengthy list of All-Americans, the numerous plaques and metal signs that have statistics and names etched into it — it’ll all be replaced. The trophies that line a singular step on the floor will be shifted just a little bit closer to make room for two more after the 2013 season, in which the Bulldogs claimed the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles before advancing to yet another NCAA tournament semifinals.
“When you walk into our clubhouse, you see national championship posters, national championships, SEC championships,” said Will Glenn, Diaz’s associate head coach and member of the 1999 and 2001 national title teams. “So when our players come in … the expectation is SEC championships and national championships being the norm.”
‘Esprit de corps’
Manuel Diaz has a process.
The foundation of his process was laid by Georgia legend Dan Magill, and Diaz has added on and expanded like the house of a growing family.
Magill picked up tennis late in life, so he shaped his tennis program around personality and perseverance. The fight in a player could be a deadlier weapon in his arsenal than his forehand. The morale of a team playing an individual sport could determine a match’s outcome as often as a line judge’s call.
“I think that was the biggest thing I took from Coach Magill is … how to get [players] excited about a dream that they could share in and every day just focus on the process,” Diaz said. “Not really on the final outcome, but the process.”
After getting the blueprints of the program from Magill in 1988, it took Diaz 12 years and five appearances in the national championship match before the refinement of his process paid off.
Three more titles have come since that first one in 1999, as have 11 SEC tournament and regular season titles.
One losing season in 25 years.
So his process?
“You just get lost in the day-to-day and it’s pretty simple,” Diaz said.
It starts with a small, geographic radius in the state of Georgia and four and a half scholarships to divvy up. Pluck the talented athletes from the state before looking outside of the HOPE scholarship’s backyard. Then tackle the Southeast. Chances are, those players have heard of Diaz’s process.
“They know about us,” Diaz said. “If we’ve got a kid in the Southeast in the United States, I think we’ve got a better chance at getting the kid here than we do a kid that lives in Seattle, Washington.”
Then comes the national recruiting and some occasional international recruiting.
Scope out the players at tournaments that are held stateside, and breakout the checklist.
How is their character? Do they crumble under pressure?
“And for a 17-year-old, that’s mostly the norm — how do they go about it though? How do they bounce back is what you want to know,” Diaz said.
Can they slide from No. 2 singles to No. 1 singles if the team’s only senior leaves the team right before the start of the NCAA tournament? How do they interact with and treat other players?
“In my four years at Georgia we had just such great team cohesiveness, and that’s still the case today,” said John Isner, a member of the 2007 national title team who is now ranked 21st on the ATP tour.
And in keeping with the process, Diaz evolves, technologically and otherwise.
Quirky team-building exercises to highlight and emphasize a support system through a long season. Connecting with players and recruits via social media. Workout regimes are tweaked, conditioning is changed.
There’s not an end — it’s just a process.
“They don’t accept mediocrity. They don’t take a year off, so to speak, and glide,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “… And if you ever think you have it solved, that’s when trouble happens.”
But a shift in the track of the game has altered the landscape of college tennis. Junior tennis players have taken notice that the average age in the top 100 on the pro tour is 27.
“I think people are now starting to see that. It all started pretty much with John Isner all of the sudden opening a lot eyes,” Diaz said.
‘The game is so physical’
The average age of a player in the top 100 on the ATP tour 10 years ago was 24.
The youngest player in the top 10 now is Argentina’s Juan Martin Del porto. He’s 24 and two years younger than the next closest player in age.
“It takes time,” said Isner, who is ranked 21st on the tour. “The game is so physical and all these guys are so strong.”
Diaz has used his esprit de corps philosophy and the emphasis on development to woo players such as Australia’s Ben Wagland into suiting up for Georgia. Wagland, who finished the season out at No. 1 singles after KU Singh abruptly left the team before the start of the NCAA tournament, is 20 and begins his sophomore season this fall. He is the age of the pro tour’s youngest players.
“You definitely have time to go pro after college because I’ll be 22 by the time I graduate,” Wagland said. “I still have four years to get into the top 100, hopefully.”
Craig Boynton, a USTA men’s national coach and Isner’s former coach, said an 18-year-old cannot withstand the demands of the pro tour, which makes the college track more of an attractive option nowadays.
“You gotta think about it, it’s gonna take someone a couple of years to figure it out on the tour,” he said. “… So there’s a lot of learning curves that go in those two years and there’s a lot of differences. It’s night and day compared to what they’re used to.”
“Your results should decide that,” said Ola Malmqvist, the USTA’s head of women’s tennis who was an All-American under Magill in 1982 and ’83. “If you have good enough results, you can go pro. If you’re not good enough, you should go to college.”
College tennis has evolved into a similar training ground for amateurs like college football is for future NFLers.
“They’ve got everything in place that if they were not in college, they would have to be paying for all of these services,” McGarity said. “Think of what it would cost to have your own coach as a professional. There’s an expense there. They have it all here.”
Nathan Pasha, who went 32-15 as a sophomore in 2013, said collegiate competition can help a player learn to adapt to the “up-and-down sport.”
“Junior tennis is a process and college tennis is a process to prepare you for pro tennis, and that’s even a process itself,” the Atlanta native said. “Understanding the process is a hard thing to do. … One day you feel like you’re on top of the world because you’re playing great and then the next day you don’t feel really good.”
It’s a process to break into the professional ranks. Isner knows something about that, climbing the 818 spots from the ranking he was given in 2007 to the ranking he has now.
And Diaz’s process is what grew Isner.
“I think every player that has ever played for Georgia … really prides themselves in being a Bulldog, the epitome of a Bulldog,” Isner said. “And that’s someone that’s never gonna give up, that’s gonna continue to fight and a lot of that begins and starts with team camaraderie, which Coach Diaz has been able to bring out in all his teams.”