Developing a Winning Culture

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa men’s tennis program has shown steady growth during the Ross Wilson era. In the five years as Mellecker Family Head Men’s Tennis Coach, Wilson has guided the Hawkeyes to 74 wins, the fifth-highest total over a five-year span in program history.

“We were 1-22 and ranked No. 177 the year before I got here (2012) and hadn’t won a Big Ten match in three years,” said Wilson. “Coach (Steve) Houghton wanted to improve the program so he called me about an open coaching position. He wanted to get the team back into the Top-50 and the top half of the Big Ten like they had been the majority of his career.”

In addition to developing a winning culture, Wilson was instrumental in helping raise over $2.7 million through alumni, former players, and friends of the program to help student-athletes improve and become professionals. In 2014-15, the program installed Playsight Technology to 14 courts, added an ITF World Tennis Tour Event on campus in 2018, and added California corners and scoreboards to the outdoor courts in 2019.

In Wilson’s second season as head coach in 2014-15, the Hawkeyes posted its first winning record in five seasons. Iowa won 14 matches, including knocking off two nationally-ranked opponents that year.

“I have taken a leadership role with every program that I have worked with, whether it is recruiting individuals or on-court coaching,” Wilson said. “I have always tried to own it. When I became the interim coach here, that is when it really sunk in for me. All of the sudden the decisions start and stop with you. You are the one making the schedule, recruiting decisions, scholarships, and lineups. That’s when it’s for real and it’s definitely your program.”

Over the next three years, the Hawkeyes averaged 14 victories, dropping a number of narrow decisions, but also picking up marquee wins along the way. During the 2017-18 campaign, Iowa boasted back-to-back wins over ranked opponents (No. 14 Dartmouth and No. 40 Oregon). The win over Dartmouth marked the highest ranked win in program history.

“I think about some of the little wins along the way, like winning at Texas Tech in 2017. It was only the second time Iowa had ever qualified for the ITA Kickoff. Texas Tech won the Big 12 the year before so that was big. It showed that we could play with the best teams in the country and this is definitely a team that could be in the NCAA Tournament every year.”

After one of Iowa’s most successful seasons, the Hawkeyes showed more growth and promise the following year. Iowa put together the third highest single-season win total (18) and the most since 1991, while finishing fifth in the Big Ten standings. Along the way, Iowa bounced three ranked conference opponents (No. 18 Minnesota, No. 19 Michigan, and No. 30 Penn State). The Hawkeyes’ fifth-place finish was their best finish in 26 seasons. Iowa defended its home court, breaking the record for most home wins (14) in program history.

“In college sports you have to win your home games,” Wilson said. “Every coach understands that and communicates that to the players. Last year we showed that our levels might be a little higher at home, like most teams, but to make the NCAA Tournament and to finish high in the Big Ten you have to win the majority of those matches if you want to accomplish your goals.”

The Hawkeyes return seven letter winners from last year’s squad. Oliver Okonkwo and Will Davies dominated doubles, registering a 22-9 record, while winning a combined 55 singles matches.

“Will and Oliver had an unbelievable season,” said Wilson. “For Oliver, especially as a freshman, to come in and win as many singles matches as he did… he played all the way through the lineup. Oliver won anywhere we needed him to play. In doubles, I think Will and Oliver play off each other really well. Oliver has the power, the big serve, and Will has a ton of energy and can keep Oliver calm. Will has great hands and doubles instincts so they were able to win a lot of matches at No. 1 doubles for us. Will has been an unbelievable singles player since he stepped on campus. Last year, when the chips were on the table and we needed him to win, he came through every single time.”

Senior Kareem Allaf also returns to anchor the Hawkeye lineup. Allaf enjoyed a great summer overseas competing for Syria in the Davis Cup. Allaf propelled Syria to a three-match sweep in pool play, winning his first three singles and doubles matches.

“Kareem has put his time in on the courts and in the gym,” Wilson said. “This summer has been great for him, representing his country in the Davis Cup and helping them advance to the next round, which was one of his goals. Then, to come back here and do so well in the pro events; he qualified for every single ITF event except for one and that was because he was injured. It is a testament to him loving the sport. He wants to be a pro, and he is willing to work at it 12 months a year. He kind of got his start here in Iowa City at our professional tournament two summers ago. He gets a wildcard entry into our tournament and made it into the quarterfinals. That made him eligible for all of the ITF tournaments he played in this summer.”

The Iowa men’s tennis program enters the 2019-20 season on the heels of its highest postseason final national and regional ranking in school history. The Hawkeyes checked in at No. 43 nationally and No. 4 in the Central Region. Davies and Okonkwo were ranked seventh regionally in doubles and Allaf 10th in singles.

“It’s great to be ranked and be in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament,” said Wilson. “It lets our players know that they could have finished in the top-35 and it is just a couple of points here and there. To have the ranking is great for recruiting and it is good to show the guys that they are making progress. But I do know that these guys aren’t satisfied and we have some pretty lofty goals this year of not only getting to the NCAA Tournament, winning a round, and finishing in the top-30 in the country.”

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