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6A - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Michigan Daily - michigandaily.com

Merklein gives student-athletes a winner's edge

By ALEX STEINHOFF
Daily Sports Writer
The year was 1994. Mark Merk-
lein had just clinched the first
set of the match against USC's
Wayne Black, 6-2. But Black, who
would eventually go on to win
four doubles Grand Slams, wasn't
going to let Merklein cruise to a
national championship.
Black and Merklein battled to
a second-set tiebreaker before
Black pulled it out, 10-8, to send
the championship match to a
third set. Merklein, Florida's all-
time leader in singles victories,
wasn't going to be denied. In
the third set, Merklein finished
strong to beat the Zimbabwean,
6-4, winning the national title as
a member of the Florida Gators.
Merklein accomplished a life-
long dream, and he was already
gearing up for his next goal of
becoming a successful profes-
sional tennis player.
College tennis players dream
of earning All-American status,
winning national championships
and some day playing on the pro-
fessional circuit. For many, this
dream is just that - a dream. But
for some members of the Michi-
gan men's tennis team, such as
junior Evan King, this dream
isn't so far-fetched. The fantasy
becomes more realistic when
somebody who lived it before
helps make it possible.
This past season, Michi-
gan shocked the college tennis
world when it hired Merklein as
assistant coach. Merklein, who
played his college tennis under
current Michigan head coach
Bruce Berque at Florida, gives
the Wolverines more than just an
experienced coach.
"I don't think our guys needed
(Merklein) to know they wanted
to play professional tennis and
win a national title," Berque said.
"But when you have somebody
who's done that and who's had
success coaching players who've

done that, I think that's really
meaningful."
The story starts eight months
before Evan King, the Wolver-
ines' oldest player, was even born.
Merklein and Berque were both
new to the Florida program in
1990. Merklein had just commit-
ted to play tennis for the Gators,
while Berque had just accepted
the assistant coaching position -
his first coaching gig in men's col-
lege tennis.
Berque and Merklein led the
Gators to their first SEC cham-
pionship in 25 years in 1994, but
Merklein's individual accom-
plishments were more astonish-
ing.
Merklein didn't waste any time
in his first two years, earning
All-American status as a fresh-
man and a sophomore. He fol-
lowed those accolades the next
two seasons by winning the dou-
bles National Championship as a
junior and the 1994 NCAA singles
title to close out his college career.
Almost immediately after
becoming the first Gator ever to
win a National Championship,
Merklein turned pro. Berque
jumped to the pro circuit one year
later to become Merklein's per-
sonal coach.
During his 11 year professional
career, Merklein learned the ups
and downs of professional tennis.
In singles, his ranking hovered
inside the top 200, reaching its
highest point of No. 160 in 1997.
But doubles was a different story.
Merklein was resilient.
Merklein won four doubles
titles. And in 2004 - one of Merk-
lein's last seasons as a profession-
al tennis player - he reached No.
37 in the world with doubles part-
ner James Blake.
Merklein retired from pro-
fessional tennis in 2005, but he
wasn't quite finished with the
game. Just a few months later, he
took a coaching position at the

USTA Develop
where he had a
with some of t
junior players, n
top-100-ranked
During his c
USTA, Merklein
nity to coach hi
partner Blake fo
was in his first ft
an injury on the,
Merklein joined
After a year to
coached Blake t
gles ranking ev
world.
In 2011, fivey
lein coached Bh
from a long-tim
league about at
opening at Mich
"(Berque
and I) had
been talking
for a while
now about an
opportunity
to come here
and coach,"
Merklein
said. "I just
thought it was
a good time;
the team looked
looked bright,,
definitely wante
college tennis
is an unbelieval
presented an un
tunity."
When Berqu
describe his re
Merklein, his p
less. He commt
tremendous play
experience at tf
professional lev(
his exquisite re
and resources.
Berque also
important Me
plishments are ft
day, each Michij
opportunity to l
body who has b

ment Program, Merklein had some success on the
chance to work professional tour, but was never
he country's top able to win a singles title or crack
nolding them into the top 100.
professionals. "I try to help them achieve
oaching stint at their goals to do the best that they
had the opportu- can," Merklein said. "And it's not
s former doubles that I met every goal I had, either.
r two years. Blake I had high goals that I didn't
ull year back from reach, and maybe there's a rea-
ATP circuit when son, and I can kind of help them
d him as coach. do what I didn't do."
gether, Merklein But perhaps Berque's most
o his highest sin- compelling reason for hiring
er at No. 4 in the Merklein is his intangibles, the
qualities that few other coaches
years after Merk- in the country could bring to a
ake, he got a call program.
e friend and col- "He's got a really special gift
assistant coach for connecting with players, and
igan. he's got a knack for getting the
most out of his
players," Ber-
"H ' o n c que said. "You
He's got a knack can do all the
for getting the research you
want, and you'll
most out of never find any-
body who'll
his players." say a bad thing
about (Merk-
lein). He's a
real terrific,
good, the future genuine person, and guys enjoy
and I thought I his coaching style, which I think
d to get back into really compliments mine."
again. Michigan ***
ble school, and it While Merklein works with
believable oppor- every one of the Wolverines, Evan
King commands his special atten-
*** tion. In 2009, King left the USTA
e was asked to Development Program in Florida
asons for hiring as TennisRPI's No. 1 recruit in
raises were end- the country to don the maize and
ended Merklein's blue. After King left the program
'ing and coaching to come to Michigan, Merklein
he collegiate and still kept an eye on him as he
els, in addition to acclimated to the college game.
cruiting contacts "When I wasn't coaching him,
I was always thinking that this
stressed how guy has the talent to (win an
rklein's accom- NCAA title)," Merklein said. "And
or his team. Every I just thought, 'How is he losing
gan player has an some of these matches?"'
earn from some- Now, Merklein has the oppor-
een there before. tunity to work with King every

day, up close and personal.
"The biggest thing he's helped
me with is, I think, the every-
day approach that, if you want
to become a successful college
player and go on to being a suc-
cessful professional, you have
to treat every practice intently,"
King said. "There's always some-
one working really hard out there,
so you just have to stay on track."
King is all-in when it comes
to the advice Merklein has for
him. For King, Merklein's suc-
cess as a player speaks for itself.
As a coach, Merklein has inspired
King to work towards winning a
national title. But, rest assured,
Merklein only wants King to
achieve the goals he has set for
himself.
King also spoke highly of
Merklein's tremendous resources
in the tennis community. Merk-
lein even hadhis formerpupil and
doubles partner Blake give Kinga
call. King had a hard time hold-
ing back his excitement and was
"giddy like no other" when he was
on the phone with the former No.
4 player in the world.
As Blake's coach, Merklein was
responsible for the intense fit-
ness program that helped get him
back into shape after his 2004
injuries. With King, Merklein is
implementing a similar training
program, hoping to elevate King's
game to the highest level.
"We've just got to start work-
ing harder, and we've done that
and worked on his fitness, getting
him stronger," Merklein said. "He
has come a long way, but for him
to go after what he really wants,
day in and day out, he has to be
the same player that he is when
he is at his best.
"That's tough for anyone to do.
But he's learning and working
harder to be more consistent now,
and I think he's going to do well."
When Michigan hired Merk-
lein last summer, it sent shock-
waves through the tennis world.

The thought of a USTA coach
moving from Florida to Ann
Arbor to become a college assis-
tant coach was beyond belief.
More than 15 years removed
from Florida, Merklein is happy
to be back in college tennis again.
But he was careful to stress that
he was happy to be back in college
tennis as a coach. While he cites
elbow pain and age as to why his
playing days are over, even King
isn't so sure.
"I've been playing with him in
practice, and he's stillgotit," King
said. "He can take some sets off
of people in practice, including
myself. It's cool to have that kind
of person around every day."
Whether it's bonding with the
team, drilling them in practice, or
playing practice matches against
the Wolverines' top singles play-
ers, Merklein is more than just
Michigan's assistant.
Merklein is a tremendous
resource in the tennis commu-
nity, a fantastic hitting partner
and a tangible example of what
college tennis players dream of
becoming.
But most importantly, Merk-
lein has been able to get the best
out of the Wolverines. Not by yell-
ing and screaming, but by helping
his players understand what it
is they want to achieve and how
they can get there.
"I think I have a good feel for
the guys, and what they want and
need, and I try to make this fun,"
Merklein said. "This is why they
started playing the game - they
love the sport. I am trying to get
every ounce I can out of each guy
and, at the same time, I don't want
guys walking out of the facility
not knowing what I am doing.
"We're going to work hard,
and some of it's going to be tough,
but I want them to have fun and
love this. This is as good as it gets
right now. The tour is a lonely
thing, but playing here with your
friends is fun, and hopefully I let
them enjoy it."

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