The Wisconsin men’s tennis team is determined to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since its 2009-10 campaign, and with the help of its senior captain, Billy Bertha, the Badgers may accomplish their prospective goal.
The son of Sue and Bill Bertha — both Wisconsin alumni — the Whitefish Bay native was a five-star recruit who was ranked No. 29 in the nation (No. 1 in Wisconsin) when he committed to UW.
Rich in experience, Bertha has the skills and knowledge required to lead this Badger squad back to the NCAA Tournament this upcoming spring. During his sophomore season, Bertha was blessed with his doubles partner, Marek Michalicka, who finished his career with the second-best singles winning percentage (.735) in Wisconsin men’s tennis history.
“Billy knows how to handle different situations because he was on that Sweet 16 team a couple of years ago with Michalicka,” head coach Greg Van Emburgh said. “It was probably one of the best teams we’ve ever had here at Wisconsin, so he knows what it takes to get to that level and he’s trying to get himself and his team back to that level that we were once at.”
Bertha and Michalicka went 18-5 (17-5 at No. 1 doubles) during the 2010-11 season, and while it was nice defeating three nationally-ranked doubles opponents that year, Bertha took more than just wins away from his time on and off the court with Michalicka.
“He was really good both at tennis and in how he conducted himself,” Bertha said. “Whether it was training, tennis or school, I learned from him how to be a better team leader and how to manage myself both on and off the court.”
Bertha’s current doubles partner, junior Alex Robles, said he sees the same type of leadership characteristics in Bertha.
“A lot of kids on our team are from outside the United States so part of being a good leader is guiding them,” Robles said. “He’s been guiding them and showing them what’s expected at practice and making sure that they keep up with their studies so that our team has a good overall GPA.”
Some team captains would shy away from this specific leadership role, with five of the eight players on the roster from countries outside the United States, but that doesn’t fit with Bertha’s style.
“I think [having many international players] is cool,” Bertha said. “We’re a melting pot and you don’t normally get that at any other schools and as one of only three Americans on the team, I get a different perspective from other people and their culture.
“I’m kind of taking [the international players] under my wing if you will. Telling them how college tennis works here in the U.S. and also with classes, school work and especially in the social realm.”
While noting expectations can only go so far, Bertha and the team have already been getting the positive results so far this season.
Those results started last month at the Milwaukee Tennis Classic, where, for the third straight year and with his third different doubles partner, Bertha won the doubles championship.
One would think being a part of three separate doubles teams in as many years would come with some breakdowns in chemistry, but not for Bertha, and not for this Badgers team.
“Everyone that plays for us knows how we play doubles so when I played with Alex [last month] we both played pretty well,” Bertha said. “I was serving well the whole tournament, while Alex was returning the ball real well so we are a natural fit. I think finding the right chemistry between [doubles] teams and just going out there and executing is going to be key to our success this year.”
With half of the team as underclassmen, executing right away will naturally be a challenge due to the lack of experience this Badger team employs.
“We have a lot of potential and that could be seen as a negative,” coach Van Emburgh said. “We have eight good players who can play anywhere in the lineup for us and we want to use that and make sure it’s used as a plus this year and in the future.
“When push comes to shove, I think that all eight guys will be up for every match whether it be in the fall or in our season in the spring,” Van Emburgh added.
Getting the team “up for every match” is a task perfectly suited for a student-athlete of Bertha’s caliber; one who, as coach Van Emburgh put it, “leads by example, tries to make the right choices, and is the hardest working player on the court.”