They were cold. Freezing, actually.
The Georgia men’s tennis players had just finished ice baths, an unpleasant experience familiar to any serious athlete. They are especially loathed on cold days.
The players began to trickle out of the tennis facility after their late-afternoon arctic dip.
They were wet, they were cold, pangs of hunger had started to set in, but tutors awaited. Maybe a quick, monotonous dining hall meal could be squeezed in before the learning session began.
And then news broke.
An evening off.
“We all had the option of either getting free dinner to eat out, not at the dining hall, or go to tutors,” Georgia junior Nathan Pasha said. “I mean, nobody was choosing tutors. We’re all pumped, excited not to go tutor.”
Most herded out of the facility, turning one way, brand new duffle bags rolling behind them, leaving one man behind.
Hernus Pieters gathered his things and exited the complex. His worn bag, marking him as a team veteran of four years, hung from his lanky frame. Pieters turned in the opposite direction of his teammates — ready to grind out a study session.
“We’re all wet and cold and starving,” Pasha said. “We just finished an ice bath, but what does Hernus actually choose? Tutors. His priorities are in the right place.”
Playing on Georgia’s No. 1 doubles team with Ben Wagland, Pieters helped lead the Georgia men’s team into the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn.
The Bulldogs (16-7, 11-2 SEC) were the top seed after winning the regular-season SEC title before getting upset by Vanderbilt in Friday’s quarterfinal.
Everyone who is asked about Pieters is tempted to ramble about the South African with the unevenly turned collar and mismatched socks. He’s as disheveled appearance-wise as he is mentally put together, but somehow it works for him.
Self-motivated to an extreme, his inward drive is nearly perceptible from the outside. One look at the guy and gears grinding just below his surface are almost visible, a whistle of steam escaping the 20-year-old senior’s ears every now and again, nearly audible.
“I’m sitting here talking to you now and I can hear the balls bouncing in the back,” Pasha said. “I see people serving in the back. But Hernus? Nah, Hernus will sit here and talk to you and only see you. He’ll block everything else out.”
His focus seems superhuman. Teammate and fellow senior Garrett Brasseaux remembers a time Pieters was nearly able to block out the weather.
“Like the first week he got here, we were practicing and it was pouring outside,” Brasseaux said. “And he walks into the locker room just soaking wet. And he walks in front of the guys and he’s like, ‘So, are we practicing outside today?’”
Pieters’ eyes bear into the recipient of his gaze, locked during conversation.
“Hernus is one of the special ones we’ve had,” assistant coach Tristan Venables said. “When he serves in a match, he’s got this kind of look in his eye. It’s a special look. He knows how to focus extremely well on the situation rather than seeing all of the external things.”
Perhaps this ability to hyper-focus brought him from a rural upbringing in Pretoria, South Africa, to competing in Wimbledon juniors, to Athens, where he and Wagland, a sophomore, teamed together to win the Division I Southern Intercollegiate doubles title in the fall.
“Focus and hard work is really what defines Hernus,” head coach Manuel Diaz said. “He’s an extremely hard worker and somebody that really gives you his all every time he’s out on the court. He’s been one of our hardest workers throughout his career at Georgia.”
At Georgia, Pieters has enjoyed success from the start. He earned All-America honors his freshman season with doubles partner Javier Garrapiz. That same season, he was also voted to the All-SEC freshman team and was named the 2011 Intercollegiate Tennis Association Southeast Region Freshman of the Year.
His junior season, he and Wagland finished the year ranked No. 5 in doubles and played in the NCAA individual tournament, reaching the quarterfinals. Pieters finished his junior year ranked No. 16 in singles.
Georgia started to pursue Pieters after calling to his juniors coach to see if she had any players interested in college. And although he was younger than normal recruits, one look at his impressive juniors résumé and he was invited to Athens for a recruiting trip.
At just 16 years old, he was working his way through two majors in Georgia’s Terry College of Business — finance and risk management — along with practice. He was also a bit farther than a short airplane trip or drive up the interstate away from home.
Pieters’ story starts on a farm in Pretoria. He was born and raised in a rural area of the country; there happened to be a tennis club, where his parents happened to play.
It was there that Pieters would embark on his journey to Athens, picking up a racket one weekend afternoon during his childhood.
Pieters began to practice diligently, wins motivating him to work harder, prompting him to practice more, a cyclical pattern of motivation and success that led him to compete as the No. 1 player in the nation at five different age-group levels as he progressed.
“That’s what makes him stand out,” Pasha said. “His determination to do everything he wants to do. That’s why we all know he’ll be successful. It’s not a matter of if he’ll be successful, we know he will just because he’s so determined.”
Not only is Pieters gifted with resilience but he is humble to boot.
“I’d like to think I work very hard, but there are other people that can tell you more about it,” Pieters said, the expression on his face more serious than sheepish. “That’s honestly one of the things that I grew up with. My family values work ethic, so I’ve kind of grown up with that mentality. It comes naturally to me, to work hard.”
Pieters appears to be sharing this value with his Georgia family as well. Wagland, originally from Australia, credits Pieters with his smooth transition to Athens and life in the United States.
“He’s definitely good for guidance in any situation that you need,” Wagland said. “That’s one of the good things, about him, he’s dedicated in everything he does. He studies very hard. I think that’s just his personality. He always wants to be the best person he can be.
“I think when I first got here, I tried to hang out with him a fair bit just because I knew him beforehand and it was going to help me transition here easier being away from home, because he was already used to it.”
Venables said that Pieters has been successful in transitioning to a style of tennis in America that is much more focused on team play than in South Africa.
“They’ve meshed tremendously well,” Venables said of Pieters and Wagland. “They’ve got a great work ethic. They’re one of the top-ranked doubles teams in the country. And Hernus, if you look at his four years, he was All-American (in doubles) with Javier Garrapiz from Spain his freshman year, and basically whoever he’s played with he’s always done well. He’s been a good teammate and certainly a good doubles teammate.”
Pieters garners respect from all that surround him. He does not demand respect. But in a quiet way, through action over announcement, his hard work is perceptible, almost tangible.
“I would say it’s one of the defining factors that contributes to whatever success I have in life,” Pieters said of his resilience. “Working hard usually leads to any good results I have.”
Brasseaux, who has played with Pieters the longest, seems to encapsulate it best.
“Hernus is a different breed, that’s for sure,” he said.
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.