Gabler takes his losses in stride

Aaron Kirscht

When asked to describe Gophers men’s tennis captain Ben Gabler, Coach David Geatz put it simply: He’s a great guy who had a bad year.
Gabler’s senior season has been hard to figure. After scoring at least 26 singles wins in each of his first three seasons — developing and strengthening his game all along — he struggled to a 15-20 finish this season, including a 6-14 mark in dual match play.
No injuries. No academic problems. No nothing.
“It’s been a very, very difficult and long season for me,” Gabler said. “I lost some tough matches and my confidence early in the season and just couldn’t get it back.
“I’ve never run into a season like that, and I just don’t know what happened.”
Gabler will have a chance to improve his lot this weekend at the NCAA Region IV tournament. The fifth-seeded Gophers (10-13 overall, 4-6 in the Big Ten) will play No. 4 Purdue on Friday in Champaign, Ill.
Minnesota split its first two matches with the Boilermakers, including an upset win in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament last month. But a loss would bring the prolific careers of the Gophers’ two seniors — Lars Hjarrand and Gabler — to an end.
For Gabler, the end may be approaching too fast.
“I think I’m playing my best tennis of the season right now,” he said. “That’s good and bad, though. I would have preferred to get to this point earlier.”
Gabler, as the team leader in singles wins (79), entered an early-season regional tournament as the No. 1 seed, looking to put it all together for one more season. He had a pair of Big Ten championship rings, and he was twice named to the All-Big Ten team. But one elusive goal — to become an All-American — remained.
“I thought he was going to have another big breakthrough year,” Geatz said. “But I think Ben just put too much pressure on himself. He just wasn’t playing the same kind of tennis, and there was no reason why he shouldn’t.”
Gabler started the regular season winning only once in his first nine tries at No. 1 singles. As the losses piled up, his trademark poise under pressure wasn’t enough to get him back in the win column.
At the same time, the losses were piling up for a team that was accustomed to winning Big Ten titles year in and year out. Gabler’s teammates looked to him, their captain, to pull them out of their funk.
“What hurt and frustrated me so much was that I tried to lead by example,” Gabler said, “but how can you do that when you had the season I had?
“The past captains had always won. I told the team how I felt, that I was having a difficult time with my game and I didn’t know why. But it was like I wasn’t holding up my end of the deal.”
It wasn’t until Hjarrand returned for the spring portion of the season that Gabler’s unfamiliar situation began to improve. Not only did he have someone with whom to share the senior leadership burden, but he was also able to drop down in the lineup.
The wins started to come, if only sparingly. Splitting time between No. 2 and No. 3 singles, Gabler went 5-5 down the stretch — better, but still not up to his standards.
“In a way, this was a good year,” Gabler said. “It instilled in me a hatred of losing. I hadn’t lost this much in a season for 15 years. I had to learn how to deal with that, and I learned I didn’t like it a whole lot.”
Should the season and his career end this weekend, Gabler said, he’ll still have plenty to remember. And he promised it won’t be the bad stuff.
“I’m not going to look at my career and feel sorry for myself,” he said. “There are too many people who went to college for four years and didn’t accomplish what I did. I’ve got two rings. I’ve got an NCAA regional championship. I’ve got to be grateful for that.”