Toledo on the cusp of NCAA berth

Leandro Toledo has won his last four matches and is ranked No. 41.

Minnesotas Leandro Toledo plays against an opponent from Drake University at the ITA Central Regional Championship on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012.

Daily File Photo, Ichigo Takikawa

Minnesota’s Leandro Toledo plays against an opponent from Drake University at the ITA Central Regional Championship on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012.

by Jace Frederick

Leandro Toledo doesn’t hide from it. He said the thought sits in the back of his mind. It drives him forward and pushes him to improve.

Toledo badly wants to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament this season.

And two victories over top-50 opponents last weekend have him on the cusp of his first NCAA singles appearance.

Toledo topped eighth-ranked Peter Kobelt last Friday before besting No. 50 Leonard Stakhovsky on Sunday. That pair of wins — both coming in straight sets — moved Toledo up 25 spots to his current ranking of No. 41, likely good enough for an NCAA bid.

“I’m actually in reach of the NCAA [championships],” he said. “I’m within those qualifying spots, so that motivated me a lot to practice and actually stay there to actually make it.”

Toledo is now 5-1 this season against ranked opponents and 6-1 in Big Ten play. He was named Big Ten Men’s Tennis Athlete of the Week for the second time this season Tuesday.

“He’s definitely one of the best players in the Big Ten,” head coach Geoff Young said.

That might seem surprising, considering that Toledo made the jump from No. 2 singles to No. 1 singles this season. Still, Young said he expected this type of performance from his ace.

“Though he was playing No. 2, he was still playing at the level of a No. 1 player,” Young said. “He’s doing a great job, and he’s striking the ball really well.”

Young said the key to Toledo’s success stems from the very beginning of each point: his serve. Toledo uses his serve to put pressure on his opponent from the get-go.

“That’s been the difference in my last two matches,” he said. “I think every time it got close and I needed to have a free point — I got that with my serve.”

Toledo’s serve and the other physical aspects of his game have always been there, but the key has been sustaining his mental toughness.

Young said he’s seen an improvement to this point of the season, though Toledo’s mental fortitude hasn’t yet been tested.

“You don’t really know until he’s really tested and some bad things happen to him,” Young said. “That’s when it really matters. That’s what I try to impress on him.”

Toledo will be tested down the stretch.

As he inches closer to that NCAA tournament berth, each match, each set and each point grows in importance.

That can be a lot for a player to deal with, assistant coach Rok Bonin said.

Bonin was in a similar position a year ago as the team’s No. 1 singles star. He spent the stretch run fighting for a spot in the postseason, which he said tested his mental strength.

Bonin entered a match against Nebraska last year, facing an opponent who “was not that good.” Still, Bonin said all he could think about during the match was, “If I lose this one, I’m not going to make NCAAs.”

“I wasn’t thinking about the match; I was thinking about the future,” Bonin recalled. “It makes it tougher because it’s not supposed to be like that.”

Toledo said he hasn’t talked to Bonin, who did qualify for the NCAA championships last season, about what to expect down the stretch.

Toledo is the favorite in both of his matches this weekend, but this late in the season, nothing is a given. Toledo’s performance will be pivotal as the season nears a close, and maintaining his focus will be paramount.

“I’m just trying to go from match to match from now on, not being distracted by the NCAA [championships],” he said. “That’s the best way to look at it.”

Young said he thinks Toledo is handling the pressure well.

Toledo lives for these moments.

“He’s always been a guy that, the more carrots you hang in front of him, the more motivation he has, the better he plays,” Young said. “I’d expect more of the same [moving forward].”

Hamburg on the mend?

The Gophers played without Jack Hamburg last weekend as the junior was out with a back injury.

Young said the odds of Hamburg returning this weekend are around “50-50,” though he is “hopeful.”