Haug overcomes injuries to lead Gophers to NCAA

by Jabari Ritchie

Minnesota men’s tennis coach David Geatz doesn’t know why Switzerland native Thomas Haug chose to play for the Gophers four years ago.

As the junior captain prepares to lead Minnesota into its ninth-straight NCAA tournament appearance this weekend, the 14-year coach attributes it to good fortune.

“I just got lucky to get Haug,” Geatz said Thursday before the Gophers left for their regional in Malibu, Calif.

“I got him in for a visit, he looked at five other schools and he just decided on Minnesota. I’m not sure why, but I’m sure happy he did.”

After battling back from injuries that prematurely ended his most promising season, Haug bounced back to earn all-conference honors for the second time this season.

Haug, the 1999 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, said he considered attending Wake Forest, Baylor, Rice and the Gophers’ first-round opponent, Arizona State.

But Minnesota, which has never finished in the top eight nationally and will finally have an on-campus facility next season, has benefited from his presence.

“He’s a great team captain,” said Geatz, whose top four players are from abroad. “He’s not a guy that leads by talking a lot. He just goes out and does it. You can’t ask for a better captain than him.”

The 6-foot-3 athlete, nicknamed “Big Haug,” is by far the tallest player on the Gopher roster and brings a high degree of athleticism to his matches.

Along with 5-foot-8 partner Harsh Mankad, Haug qualified for this season’s NCAA doubles championships. Mankad and Haug are ranked 33rd in the country, although they missed several matches.

“He’s got all the tools for tennis,” said Mankad, who is ranked No. 4 in the nation. “He’s very crafty on the court and he serves both right-handed and left-handed. He plays with a lot of angles and he fights hard, so he’s very difficult to play.”

Despite Haug’s 26-8 All-Big Ten season in 2002, Geatz believes the junior’s growth was stunted by major injuries last year. After spending six months rehabilitating from two knee surgeries, Haug suffered a ligament tear in his shoulder almost as soon as he came back.

“That last year, before he got hurt, I thought Haug could be one of the top five players in the country,” Geatz said. “Then he got hurt and I think it slowed down his progress. That guy’s got all kinds of athletic ability, and he’s got really good competitive spirit and heart, but I don’t think Haug is as good as I thought he was going to be.”

The second injury forced him to serve with his right hand for the next three to four months.

“I was almost out for 10 months from playing my best tennis and it takes a while to come back from that,” Haug said.

“That one fall when I was playing so good, I think everything just came together. I was just playing the best tennis I’ve ever played.”

Despite the injury problems – which resulted in a medical redshirt in 2001 – Haug managed to finish the year ranked 84th in the nation with a 10-3 singles record. His final match of the year was a win in the Region IV Championship in the fall.

While he has not surpassed his level of play before the injury, Haug said he has improved steadily this spring.

Perhaps with the good fortune that brought him to Minnesota, Haug could reach his full potential.

“I’m probably pretty close to where I was,” he said. “Everybody’s playing better every year, so I’ve got to improve every year. Ö I’ve got to keep working hard and hope that next fall everything will work out again.”

Jabari Ritchie covers tennis and welcomes comments at [email protected]