Ask the Experts
The Target is Always the Top: An Interview with Florida Women's Coach Roland Thornqvist
by Colette Lewis
, 13 June 2012
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By collecting his third NCAA team title last month, and second in as many years, Florida women's coach Roland Thornqvist joined select company. Only three other coaches in NCAA Women's Division I history have won more than two - Stanford's Frank Brennan and current Cardinal coach Lele Forood and Thornqvist's Florida predecessor Andy Brandi, who also won three.
Yet coaching college tennis wasn't Thornqvist's original ambition. After an All-American career at the University of North Carolina
, the native of Sweden sought a place on the professional tour in 1993, reaching a high of 290 in the rankings after one year. But a lack of funds brought him back to North Carolina, where he finished his degree and joined Tar Heel men's coach Sam Paul's staff as an assistant, and he discovered a passion for coaching almost by accident.
"I loved it, I just loved coaching," says Thornqvist, 42. "I had wanted to play full time and be a real pro. But once I started coaching with Sam, I really enjoyed it, really, really did enjoy it. And I thought I was decent at it too."
Seeking a head coaching position, Thornqvist spent two years coaching the University of Kansas women's team before returning to his alma mater as women's head coach from 1999-2001. With his wife's family in North Carolina and two young children, the decision to accept the Florida job wasn't an easy one, but it has proved an unqualified success. In 2002, Thornqvist's first year as head coach, Florida reached the NCAA team finals, losing to Stanford, and in his second, the Gators won the title, beating Stanford in Gainesville. In his 11 years at Florida, Thornqvist has a record of 276-31 and was named ITA Coach of the Year in 2011.
I had an opportunity to talk with Thornqvist in Athens, Ga. last month, just a few days after his team's 4-0 victory over UCLA in the final. In the question and answer segment below, he reveals what he looks for in a recruit, how a bad year by Florida standards led to two NCAA team titles, and the one thing that college tennis needs.
Questions and Answers
Colette Lewis (CL): What attracted you to Florida?
Roland Thornqvist (RT): I always viewed Florida as the job. Since my wife is from North Carolina, and her family was there, it was one of those things where we had to make a decision, but she was all for it. The support there is second to none. We have everything we need - the facility, the support staff - and obviously there are a lot of good players in Florida. And now the trend is that even the better juniors are going to school. Six or seven years ago, that was not the case, and when that happened we sort of lost our recruiting edge, and just like everyone else, I had to recruit foreign players to be competitive. But now, with players like Lauren (Embree) and Allie (Will) deciding to go to school first and then play, I feel like most of the players from the state of Florida view the University of Florida very highly, so we'll have a chance with them all.
CL: What do you look for in a recruit, when you're at junior tournaments, or at Futures events? RT:
A combination of many factors: athleticism is certainly one, competitiveness, character. The way we play, we have to have good athletes if we're going to be competitive, because of the heat and humidity. It's really hard to be Lindsay Davenport and hit three balls every point and be good long term at Florida. Perhaps if you go to the indoor schools or the Northeast, it's different, you play shorter points and you can have a different prototype player. So we need athletes that can move, that can run, can defend, can have different parts to their game.
But the absolute most important thing is a love for the game. The only problems I've had in my 11 years at Florida have been when players have fallen out of love with the game. We take tennis very seriously, and people in the community are interested and pay attention to us, so we try to teach players to be independent and take ownership of their games, more so than micromanaging. If they don't have the inner drive and lose motivation, you see a real slip in their performance. So we want players who really care about their games, who love training, who desire to be better each and every month. Those players seem to thrive in our program.
CL: Are they hard to find? Or is your program at the level now where you can get pretty much who you want?
RT: No, no. It's not that easy, no. But we try to really communicate that early on in the process, so that the players who come to look at our program know that if you're so-so about playing, no matter how good you are, no matter how high you're ranked, it's just not a good fit. So if you can get that out early in the process, it's a great filter, and you have players interested in your school that fit that mold. There are a handful of players here (in Athens) that we had in for visits that didn't like Florida because it was too much. I think that if you're honest with yourself and what you do, that's the easiest and best way to find the right fit.