For the Minnesota men's tennis team, life with Tobias Wernet at the top of the lineup sure is better than life without the freshman from Mainz, Germany.
Wernet, one of coach Geoff Young's first recruits leading the Gophers, was poised to be a fixture at the top of Minnesota's singles and doubles lineup this spring; that is, until the NCAA intervened.
Shortly after committing to the University in June, Wernet - who finished the fall season with an 8-3 singles record, earning a 10th seed at the Big Ten singles tournament in November - was informed by the NCAA Initial Eligibility Center that he must sit out the Gophers' first 10 spring duals because he violated NCAA rules by playing on a professional team in Germany during his teenage career.
With Wernet out of the lineup, Minnesota - ranked 40th in the country to start the season - stumbled to a 1-9 start and is now in serious of danger of missing the NCAA tournament for only the second time in 15 years.
It's no coincidence to anyone involved with the Gophers that when Wernet returned to Minnesota's lineup on March 2, Minnesota (2-12 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) pulled off arguably its biggest win of the season - a 4-3 upset victory over 38th-ranked William & Mary, and has been much more competitive since.
"We are definitely much better with him in the lineup," Young said.
Senior captain Raoul Schwark from Dalheim, Germany, played with Wernet's older brother and has has known the younger Wernet for many years, hitting the courts with him as early as when Wernet was 14. Schwark, who knows Wernet's ability perhaps better than anyone else in the states, said he thinks the Gophers may have lived up to their preseason billing had Wernet been available.
"If we would have had Tobias from the beginning on, I think we would have had a way better (record) than now," Schwark said.
After dropping his first two singles matches of the spring season in three sets, Wernet picked up his first victory of the dual season against Indiana on Saturday - a come-from-behind 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 decision at No. 3 singles, in the midst of medical timeouts due to excessive cramping, nonetheless.
After being a spectator much of the season, it was a much needed victory to boost the freshman's confidence.
"It was an amazing feeling and I really needed that," Wernet said. "It's tough as a freshman and come into the lineup and play (No. 2 or No. 3 singles) right away."
They say nice guys finish last, but that isn't always true.
Once he decided he wanted to play collegiate tennis in the United States, Wernet was a hot commodity - being heavily recruited nationally by the likes of UCLA, Pepperdine and Baylor.
The Gophers also did plenty to try and persuade Wernet to wear maroon and gold. Assistant coach Urban Ljubic traveled overseas to see Wernet play in Germany. Young brought Wernet to Minneapolis on a visit last winter. Schwark tried to influence his friend to come play in the Twin Cities.
But at the end of the day, Wernet said he choose the Gophers because of Young's compassion.
Young, Wernet says, was the only coach who really cared about his problems, particularly the NCAA obstacles he had to overcome.
"I choose Minnesota because (coach) Geoff (Young) was very nice," he said. "The other coaches they didn't care that much, they said "do your stuff" but I didn't know what to do."
On a young team, Wernet has already established himself as a leader, despite being an underclassman.
Young said Wernet energizes the team with his spirited play whether in practice or a match.
"He really embraced the Gophers from day one. He provides a lot in addition to being a talented young player," Young said. "He brings a lot of emery for a freshman."
"I've had freshman before come in with a lot of energy, but not probably at the extent as Tobias," he said.
The graduate of Karthause Koblenz Gymnasium said he embraces being in a leadership role.
"I have no problems being a leader. I like to communicate with my team and with the coaches," he said. "I try to bring fresh air to the team."
Wernet, a three-time runner-up in the German doubles championship, said doubles was the strong part of his game at the Gymnasium.
Still winless at No.1 doubles this spring, he hopes to find his groove in the season's final month of play.
"I thought my doubles was (my strong point), but it doesn't look like it right now. I used to pop into the spot big-time at the net, but now I'm kind of freezing at the net. I think we just need to win."
Young said Wernet, like all his young players, should continue to improve in doubles - a weakness for the Gophers thus far this season - as the season progresses.
"I do expect him to help in doubles, and he will. He's a good doubles player; he has a good serve, a good return and he is very athletic. He needs to work on his volleying, but he's still a capable volleyer."
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