The transition from playing high school sports to collegiate athletics has always been a challenging one, and for good reasons: college sports are faster, more physical, more mentally challenging and require much more of a time commitment.
Now imagine going through all these changes in a brand new country. That’s what Badger tennis’ Oskar Wikberg has been facing on a daily basis since his arrival from Sweden last August.
One thing that hasn’t changed for Wikberg is the level of his play. The freshman phenom recorded an 11-2 singles record this past fall during his three tournament appearances, including a second place finish at the Big Ten Indoor Tennis Tournament in November.
That 11-2 record came as a surprise to some of the team’s players including senior Alexander Kostanov, who is a foreigner himself, coming from Russia.
“Coming into the season, I thought he was the best freshman out of our recruiting class,” Kostanov said, “But I didn’t expect that record. I didn’t expect it at all.”
Yet for Wikberg, the solid play is not only what the young player expected, but the first steps toward his future.
“I want to play professional tennis,” Wikberg said. “So everyday I work toward that goal. I knew there was going to be some pressure to perform but I just kept telling myself to take it one match at a time and if I bring my best, then everything will work out.”
Wisconsin head coach Greg Van Emburgh saw this type of potential in the former-U18 Swedish Singles national champion during the recruitment process.
“We wanted Oskar here because he was one of the top players Sweden had to offer,” Van Emburgh said. “They have a great youth development program over there so we knew he came to us from a good background.”
Wikberg knows, however, his play back home in Sweden means nothing if he does not perform to the same standards and beyond during his collegiate career at Wisconsin.
“I have to focus and constantly work on my skills if I’m going to take it to the next level,” Wikberg said. “[Between the fall and spring seasons] I worked mainly on my backhand and conditioning in order to get a better all-around game.”
It’s one thing to have focus in practice and another to have it during a match against Big Ten competition, especially for someone unaccustomed to some of the norms in American collegiate tennis.
“[As a foreign player myself], I took him under my wing and taught him how to act on the court,” Kostanov said. “It’s especially important [to know those things] in a big rivalry game against Minnesota or Ohio State when everyone is trying to do whatever they can to win.”
Oskar did acknowledge there is a difference between playing a match in the Big Ten Tournament and a match back home because here “you’re not just playing for yourself but for other guys and for the team.”
“The matches here are louder than any match I played back home,” Wikberg said.
In Wikberg’s case, the phrase “back home” doesn’t exactly fit a traditional definition.
Wikberg spent three years of high school away from home and away from his family in order to play tennis – the main reason why he believes his transition to a different country has been “easier than people would think.”
A major part of the adjustment is what happens off the court and, specifically, in the classroom. That’s where this Badger team is special because it has the type of leadership to help guide the five international players on the team’s active roster.
“Billy [Bertha] has been guiding them and making sure they keep up with their studies so that our team has a good overall GPA,” junior Alex Robles said in an interview with The Badger Herald this past fall.
Van Emburgh said he believes Wikberg has made a smooth transition to life as a college freshman in the U.S. and that he “has been excited since day one to be a Badger and wear that ‘W’ on his chest.”
At the end of the day, while Wikberg has individual goals of wanting to turn professional, he has a team-first mentality and would rather have a team championship than any individual honor.
“He’s always the first guy to cheer for someone else,” Van Emburgh said. “And it’s great to have a player like that on your team.”