Mankad’s return gives men’s tennis huge boost

Jabari Ritchie

Facing one of the top men’s tennis teams in the nation last week, Minnesota’s No. 1 singles player Harsh Mankad found himself on the edge.

Mankad, back with the Gophers after playing for India’s Davis Cup team for a week, lost the first set 6-3 to Illinois’ 12th-ranked Amer Delic and trailed deep in the second set.

But Mankad, who had a similar challenge early in a 7-6, 6-1 win over Northwestern’s Thomas Hanus the night before, refused to go down.

The Minnesota junior battled back to win the second set 7-6 and after finishing off the match with a 6-1 win in the final set, Mankad pulled off his shirt and threw it into the cheering crowd.

It was a long, hard-fought match, but as he has done all year, the nation’s top-ranked player played up to the challenge.

“I think he’s the best kid in college tennis,” said coach David Geatz, who was the only collegiate coach to heavily recruit Mankad. “Some guys are great singles players. Some guys are great doubles players. He’s the best combination of both.”

For Mankad, who has won five-straight matches to build up a 21-3 record this year, each season with Minnesota has brought more success.

In his first two seasons, he compiled a 57-31 singles record and was named All-Big Ten, conference Freshman of the Year and Big Ten Sportsman of the Year.

Although he has excelled in tennis, competing in the Junior Wimbledon tournament in 1997 and winning India’s Junior National Championships a year later, Mankad says he did not begin to focus on the sport until he was about 15 years old.

“Sports has always been my first love,” said Mankad, who has also played soccer, cricket and field hockey. “I didn’t really like to be in the classroom. I always wanted to be out there playing.

“Any sport I could play I would just pick it up and I was pretty good. It got to the point where my parents had to kind of keep me from playing too many sports.”

Last fall, Mankad cracked the ranks of the top collegiate players in the country. Ranked 22nd in the preseason rankings, he became the first Gopher and the first Big Ten player in nearly a dozen years to win the ITA Intercollegiate Indoor Championships.

By December, he was No. 2 in college tennis ñ the highest-ranked player in Minnesota history.

“Harsh has been playing the best I’ve seen him play since he came here,” said junior Thomas Haug, Mankad’s partner at No. 1 doubles. “It’s a confidence boost for everybody because he wins like 95 percent of his matches at No. 1 against other good players. When you go in you can relax because there’s always a good chance for Harsh to win.”

But despite their top player’s impressive progress, the Gophers haven’t enjoyed all the benefits of Mankad’s success. The Mumbai, India, native missed seven matches due to a wrist injury and competition in the Davis Cup.

But after helping India defeat New Zealand two weeks ago, Mankad will not miss another collegiate match to play internationally this season.

Minnesota lost three matches without Mankad in the lineup.

“That’s not an excuse, but we would have had a better chance if he would have played the matches,” said junior Manuel Lievano. “It hurt us a lot, but he was doing something good for him so we don’t regret that.”

With two matches to go before the Big Ten championships, Mankad’s return couldn’t have come at a better time for the Gophers.

“It’s always a transition that I have to make and I feel that things are back to normal,” he said. “Last weekend was good, now we have to pick up our game outside and make a run at the Big Ten tournament.”

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