June 7, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Summer is a time when college student-athletes do internships to help prepare for the next level. But that pursuit is hardly limited solely to student-athletes.
Georgia Tech men’s tennis assistant coach Derek Schwandt has found that coaches can use the summer for that same purpose and is taking full advantage, having been named one of six coaches that will participate in the USTA Collegiate National Team Staff.
It’s a select program, which began in 1996, with the mission of getting some of the top American players (this year it’s three men, three women) ready for the rigors of pro tennis. Schwandt’s duties, which last approximately two months, begin with two weeks dedicated to training, with the rest of the time spent accompanying the student-athletes to, and coaching them in, a series of six pro events on the ITF Futures Circuit and the ATP Challenger Tour. This year, the USTA has enhanced the experience by introducing the inaugural American Collegiate Invitational, which will take place, Sept. 4-6 (the second week of the US Open) and will be played at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y., home of the Open.
“They have goals of playing pro after they graduate so it’s a transitional program to take the top American college players and get them ready for the tour when they graduate,” said Schwandt, of the program, whose list of alumni includes former Jacket Irina Falconi. “Their whole day and their whole week in the summer are based upon the tennis schedule. It’s all about the tennis and their development. There’s no distraction. That’s one of the advantages.”
Schwandt, who completed his second year on the Yellow Jackets’ staff and his sixth as an assistant (he’d previously worked for two years each at Fresno State and, prior to that, at Virginia), has the advantage of knowing the circuit, having played on it from 2005 through 2008, following his stellar career at the University of Richmond. He’s eager to pass on his knowledge to his assigned protégé, University of Virginia’s Mitchell Frank. Schwandt knows Frank, who heads into his senior year with the Cavs as a two-time ITA All-American singles champion, and who has given the Jackets good reason to wish he was already ON the pro tour, as he has never lost a match against Georgia Tech, going 3-0 in singles and 3-0 in doubles.
Schwandt is looking forward to getting to know Frank better.
“Mitchell is really focused on his tennis so it’s going to be really cool to see what we can do,” Schwandt said. “I’m going to be able to spend a lot of one-on-one time with Mitchell and it will just be totally based on his development and I can focus on his needs. It’s an opportunity where I can put all my focus on the one guy and cater to him.
“I’m not going to approach this summer thinking that I’m going to do any drastic changes to Mitchell’s tennis game,” he added. “I’m more of a leader, to help him prepare and train with him and try to be a good example for him and teach him some things off the court hopefully. As far as teaching tactics or techniques, I don’t think that’s going to be part of my role.”
A key off-the-court component is networking. Schwandt has entertained the idea of broadening Frank’s circle by introducing him to, amongst others, former Yellow Jackets and current futures players Juan Spir and Kevin King. King recently won in singles and doubles at the Abierto Internacional de Tenis Varonil Berimbau 2014 in Mexico City (his doubles partner was former Jacket Dean O’Brien).
“You’re out there and you can’t be alone out there,” he said. “So the more connections Mitchell can have and the more people you can connect with the better because you need people to travel with and practice with. It would be cool to connect Mitchell with Kevin and Juan and see if those guys might be able to do some traveling together at some point in the future.”
Of course, Schwandt also will be thinking about Georgia Tech and the future after the summer. He sees being out on the tour as a potential benefit in getting the Tech name out there and helping him expand a networking base, which, in two years has helped him net the 11th- and 14th-ranked recruiting classes in the country.
“The No. 1 thing with recruiting, the best thing that you can do is to build relationships and build trust. This position is going to give me an opportunity to get close with a lot of people and build some relationships,” he said. “Whereas most schools you’re going to be sending e-mails and making phone calls, I’m going to be getting to spend face-to-face time with some of these international coaches and players. So I think it’s a great opportunity to enhance our recruiting. Every coach can tell you all the great things about his school but the way you can separate yourself is if you have a personal connection with somebody.”
Schwandt credits his connections within the tennis coaching community for helping land this position. In addition to currently working with Jackets coach Kenny Thorne, the National Coach of the Year in 2011, he’s worked with Virginia coach Brian Boland, who guided the Cavs to the National Championship in 2013, and who is good friends with USTA Men’s Tennis National Coach Dustin Taylor.
“They’re some great people to have in my corner,” he said. “Thankfully I’ve been around those guys and in their network and that’s been the biggest thing to getting this opportunity.”
Thorne was especially enthusiastic about his assistant getting and making the most of this opportunity.
“Kenny’s totally behind me, and he thinks it’s an awesome opportunity to coach and to make some connections with the USTA and with the top American players,” Schwandt said. “He sees it as all positive and he was a big supporter in the whole process, in making it happen.”
The first day of training is Monday. The position has transformed his usual summer into one that promises to be invaluable and unforgettable.
“I think I’d be doing something similar, actually traveling around to tournaments recruiting but without the coaching side of it,” he said. “So it’s a really cool opportunity to coach and grow as a coach, plus do the things that I’d normally be doing on the road recruiting.
“I think I’m going to learn a lot from [Frank], too,” he added. “Mitchell has a lot to offer from a work-ethic standpoint and his approach to the game, his love for the game. So I think I’m going to learn more than he’s going to learn. It’s a really cool opportunity.”