As the seemingly endless winter weather continues to pummel Madison, the Wisconsin men’s tennis team is preparing for a big spring by heating it up during their season-opening 12-match homestand at the Nielsen Tennis Stadium. Having already jumped to a quick 5-1 start to open their season, the Badgers look to build on their early season success as the homestand continues.
It’s an important string of matches for a team that has big plans for the upcoming season.
“It’s nice to play at home because all of the guys, even new guys, are very comfortable in Nielson,” head coach Greg Van Emburgh said. “[Being at home] enables young guys to play their best tennis and gets everyone on the same page.”
Getting everyone comfortable and on the same page early in the season will be a critical task for Van Emburgh as the competition picks up for a Badger team featuring three freshmen. Nonetheless, grand expectations remain this spring for a team that feels it has something to prove.
“I believe we’re one of the most underrated, under-ranked teams in the country,” Van Emburgh said. “We have two seniors who understand what it takes to win, and the younger guys are definitely ready for their matches.”
Van Emburgh said his team goals for the years were to “finish strong in the Big Ten and get back into the NCAA tournament.”
The Division I men’s tennis championship is a single elimination bracket draw, formatted the same way as Division I basketball’s March Madness tournament. It is no small task reaching the tournament, as only the top 64 teams in the country are invited.
The last Badger team to earn a spot in the tournament was the 2009-2010 squad, which advanced to the round of 16, something no Wisconsin team had done in the program’s history.
The only remaining member of the 2009-2010 group on this year’s Wisconsin team, senior captain Billy Bertha, understands the challenge of making the tournament but knows it’s still a real possibility.
“We’ve been practicing very hard,” Bertha said. “Everyone is more focused, staying earlier and leaving later at practice and in the weight room as well.”
“The new guys are getting used to college tennis and learning what is expected of them as athletes. They’re starting to get competition under their belt and we’re gelling as a team.”
One of the younger talents Bertha is referring to is Oskar Wikberg.
Only a freshman, Wikberg has already made a large impact on the team. Raised in T?by, Sweden, he has been a tennis standout for many years, eventually winning the Swedish U18 singles national championship. Wikberg has built a very strong 15-2 record individually to start his college career and although he is in a new environment, he seems to be finding his place smoothly and naturally with the help of older teammates.
“Our chemistry is really good,” Wikberg says, “Bill [Bertha] helps out younger players and gives us advice, we have a good mix of young players and older players and it’s a perfect match.”
Wikberg and Bertha both have the potential to make some noise individually in the NCAA tournament but they are clearly focused on the team.
“My goal is for the team to reach the NCAA tournament,” Wikberg said. “Making the tournament individually is just a bonus. My first goal is for the team to reach the tournament. It’s a tough goal but it is very possible. We have to do it one match at a time.”
Although the goals are big, the team knows they must take care of business at home before they plan their trip to the NCAA tournament. The 12-match home stand to begin the year is critical for a young team trying to find their comfort zone and chemistry for the season.
“It’s very important to start off on the right foot at home,” says Wikberg. “It’s much tougher on the road with bigger crowds. If we could get a few people to our home matches we could use that to our advantage.”
As youthful as the team may be, it’s clear “the sky is the limit” mindset has taken over the program. When asked about the team’s youth and diversity, Van Emburgh has confidence and optimism.
“We have a great mix. It doesn’t matter where [our guys] are from as long as they have the same goals,” he said. “It comes down to whether we have good guys who are hard workers and on the same page and the answer to that is yes.”