I never thought I was gonna be #1 in the nation!

by Dominic Tinodi

Sebastian Stiefelmeyer was one of 5 players who was at the top of the ITA NCAA-DI ranking during the 2014/2015 season. Since Sebastian's first appearance as #1 of the nation in January this year, he was consistently within the Top 8 of the ranking. His last appearance as a college player is the NCAA Tennis Singles Championship from May 20 to May 25, 2015. Read our extensive interview with him about his experience as a college tennis player, what he will remember the most, and why he recommends young fellow tennis players to get an education at college and play for a team.

Photo credit: Sebastian Stiefelmeyer

We spoke to Sebastian shortly after he first reached the #1 spot. Some months have passed since then and the season is just about to end for the senior of the University of Louisville (UofL). His achievements have already been honored by the ITA, as he is the national receiver of this season's Intercollegiate Tennis Association/Arthur Ashe Jr., Sportsmanship and Leadership Award. A huge achievement!
He has one tournament left to show what he's got on the collegiate level. At the time of writing, Sebastian just won the second round and is about to take on Winston Lin in the round of 16.
Date of the interview: February 22, 2015*.

You became #1 in the ITA-ranking in January this year. How do you feel about this achievement?
It's a great honor for me. It made me very happy, and it showed that I have improved my game every year. More players try their best to beat me now, but I feel that I deserve the #1 spot.

You climbed the rankings ladder within 4 months, starting from #110 in the pre-season poll. One of the main reasons was your title at the "All-American Championships". What's your takeaway from this event?
My goal before the tournament was to qualify for the main draw. Only 2 players from the University of Louisville have been in the main draw before. I won the qualifying and from then onwards, each round was simply a bonus. I had absolutely nothing to lose, compared to the pressure my opponents had. I played my best tennis; meaning I'm going for long rallies, and I have a very low number of unforced errors. The mental part played a major role. There were plenty of decisive moments [no-ad scoring] through which I often gained momentum; especially in the later rounds.

What do you expect from the rest of the season? What are your goals both as a team but also personally?
I'd love to see us finish within the top 20 as a team. Everything else would be disappointing, especially if you have 6 seniors on the team with more experience and skills on the court than several other teams. My personal goals are to finish the season within the ITA Top 15 and try to finish the season unbeaten.

What was the best ranking of the team during your time at the UofL?
#27 or #28 in my first year. Maybe #26 for a short time, but not within the Top 20.

Where would you see the Top 10 of college tennis in the ATP rankings?
Maybe around #300 - #500. Mackenzie McDonald for example qualified for the main draw of the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati, Brayden Schnur for Toronto. Hanfmann, who I beat in the final, won a Futures tournament in Germany in the summer and beat a Portuguese player who had a career high of #130. Andrew Harris from Oklahoma played a Challenger recently and lost against Baghdatis in the semifinals.

Why did you decide to play college tennis?
I didn't wanna turn pro, because I wasn't ready for it. But I also didn't wanna stop compete. I think it's simply the perfect environment to combine both sports and education. You get a good education, you perfect your English skills, and you learn to live by yourself. You're away from home, you mature and the practice is very professional. In Austria and most other countries you don't have a comparable college sports system. That's why I decided to go to the U.S. But I didn't think the level of tennis would be this high.

What was your highest ranking in the under 18 ITF junior rankings?
Maybe #75 [Correct: #67, March 2010].

But you still say that you weren't close to trying the pro tour?
Yes there was quite a bit missing.

What would have been your alternatives?
I would have probably studied back home, and I would have played tennis for fun and worked on the side. But I wouldn't have pursued my tennis career the way I was able to for the last 4 years.



Why did you pick the University of Louisville?
That was a combination of things: I had several offers, but the coach here talked to me more often, was very interested, and he was the only one who wanted to speak to my coach in Austria, to my parents, and even to my brother. The success of the team in the past, and I wanted to attend a larger university. We play in division I; that was my goal and the fact that the college is not in the middle of nowhere. And then of course the scholarship. Because tuition is very expensive, especially compared to Europe, the scholarship offer was attractive from the start.

You're having a great season. Have you also had tough times during the last 4 years?
I played well during my first term here in the fall, but I had some problems adapting to the new environment. It is different. All of a sudden you don't have 1 coach per player anymore but instead 3 coaches for 14 players. You feel more pressure, because it's all about the team. And then of course the pressure both in school and on the court. That wasn't the easiest in the beginning, though I played well.
The junior year was disappointing. I played bad tennis. In the middle of the season, I lost 0-6 1-6 and told myself, that's not how I want my tennis career to end. I found new inspiration, motivation, gave everything in practice, and had fun again, which I believe was the major difference. This was the turning point of my college career. After a solid freshman and sophomore year, things were steadily getting better again.

Are you saying you were about to drop out of college?
No no, it was rather a question whether I was gonna continue compete at #1 singles or somewhere further down the line-up.

You are graduating at the end of the season. What are you studying?
Economics with minors in Finance and International Business.

What are your plans for the time after college?
I haven't done my military service [mandatory 6-month duty for men in Austria] yet. I'd like to start with grad school in the fall in Austria, work as a coach on the side, and play some tournaments. But who knows: if my tennis continues to develop the same way and I play well in the summer, I might play some more tournaments on the pro-level and re-evaluate the situation then. But that's not the goal right now. A year ago, I never thought I was gonna be #1 in the nation.

You mentioned the top players to be equivalent to #300 - 500 in the ATP rankings. What's the reason for you not planning on turning pro?
Money is one thing of course. The other one is that I need to be convinced that I can make it to the Grand Slams. The goal of any tennis player has to be to play on the highest level. And that's clearly Grand Slam events. Not only financially, but simply because of the atmosphere. Right now, I cannot see myself compete on a level with the top players there. I haven't been to a Challenger event yet, but there are so many great players. I don't think I would enjoy traveling 30 weeks a year, count every penny, and play in front of 100 people. I don't think I want this to be my everyday job. I really like what I study in class and if all goes according to plan, I'd like to find a job soon.
Plus, the guys on the tour serve really well. I know that's not necessarily my greatest weapon. If you see some of them having a poor game from the baseline, you'll at least always see them serve really well. That's what is missing in my game.

What do you think you could achieve next summer at Futures events?
Definitely semifinals, finals, and titles. I should definitely be able to make the semifinals if the draw is OK and if I get my game together. I played a Futures tournament in Austria last year. I won the qualification, played well and lost in the first round against the finalist of the event, who was #36 [ATP] before: Karol Beck (SVK).

It's hard to miss your college results against Blaz Rola, who now appears in the main draws at Grand Slams. What's missing compared to players at this level?
I was a break up in the third against him in my freshman year; I didn't think he played that well back then. The year after, I lost in straight sets 1-6, 3-6 on his home courts. I noticed that he has a lot of power from both sides. I make most of my points with my backhand and have a harder time generating speed on the forehand. But I didn't think that Blaz would climb this high up in the ATP rankings. I was surprised to see him advance this fast from college to the Grand Slam main draws.



How else have you developed at college?
I improved physically, because college coaches value the fitness of the players. I have gained around 5 lbs; most of them in my first term. I have better stamina, became stronger and more explosive. You often experience real Davis Cup atmosphere in the matches and the guys fight by every means. There are plenty of close situations, in which you feel more pressure as if you played just for yourself. I therefore improved a lot mentally. I'm now closer to the baseline than before, and I have better length in my groundstrokes. Together with my fitness and few unforced errors in my game, I win a lot of the long rallies. Coaches like to see you keep the rallies short and finish the points at the net. I definitely have room for improvement in this part of the game, but I try to step in with my backhand and keep the balls low.

According to your profile on the ITF- website, your favorite surface is clay. Is this still the case?
Yes, clay or slow hardcourts. I recently played a tournament in Flushing Meadows. There are indoor courts next to the Arthur Ashe Stadium with the same surface as the U.S. Open courts and that was quite fast. I got along better than expected, but I do prefer clay or slow hardcourts after all.

What would it take next summer to make you wanna try to go pro?
Most depends on my gut feeling; where I can see myself, and how I win my matches in the summer. Do I win because I am clearly the better player or do I have to fight to advance to the next round? Even if I won Futures, but I would have to fight real hard in every match, I wouldn't be convinced. I'd have to show compelling performances and win against good players.

Would your stance on pro tennis be different if more players could make their living playing tennis?
If the ATP #300 player could live on it, yes, but another major difference would be if you played in front of larger crowds. It's something completely different if you see the Arthur Ashe Stadium with 18,000 seats and compare that to smaller events where a maximum of 100 people watch you play. That is such a difference. At least for me, enjoying large, loud crowds in college tennis. It makes me play better and it's a lot more fun.

Meaning you are the type of player who steps it up, the more intensity and importance of the match?
Absolutely.

Where do you see yourself in 3 years?
In Austria, hopefully with a graduate degree in Economics and a job in financial advisory.

Why would you recommend young tennis players to go to college?
In my opinion, many players are not ready for the professional tour. Definitely the education and the experience you gain. No one can take that away from you and you learn for the first time to really work things out by yourself. You get to know different cultures, and you understand that prejudices simply don't reflect reality. For me the Americans are the nicest people I have ever met: open-minded, warm-hearted people; maybe also because I live in the South, in Kentucky.
You might think you don't practice in professional conditions, but the stadiums and the people's enthusiasm for sports are unique. Playing against Blaz Rola in front of 400 people; these are things I will never forget. Back home in Austria, you'd only see this passion for sports in alpine skiing. Of course, coaches expect something in return, but that's when you see whether you're ready for pro matches both mentally and physically.

What is the best experience or memory of your college time that you will take home?
In general all the friendships I have made. Especially with the 5 other guys, I graduate with this year. If I think of it, it's kind of sad. We take the same classes, we practice together, some of us share the same place, we travel, spend literally 24/7 together. This only happens at college.
In tennis, the biggest moment was certainly when I won the National Title, and when the team surprisingly won the conference title in my first year. It felt like going for a Grand Slam for all of us and then we made it - together. This is an amazing memory.

Thank you for the interview.

*Original Interview in German. Translated from German to English by Dominic Tinodi
A short version of the interview was first published on Laola1.

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