Michael Shabaz went from Wimbledon junior boys' doubles champion in 2005 to a star player on the University of Virginia men's tennis team, where he is now a senior and ranked third in doubles and sixth in singles in the NCAA Division I Men's National Preseason Rankings. Shabaz is coming off an outstanding junior season, when he teamed with Drew Courtney to win the 2010 NCAA Doubles Championships. He also earned All-America honors in both singles and doubles after compiling a 35-11 record in singles and a 35-9 mark in doubles.
Shabaz has had an excellent start to the 2010-11 season, as well, winning the doubles title with Courtney at the ITA All-American Championships, the first major tournament of the year. Last month, he became the first college player in 13 years to reach a USTA Pro Circuit Challenger final, when he qualified into the event in Charlottesville, Va., and defeated rising stars Ryan Harrison and Kei Nishikori en route to the championship match, where he fell to world No. 149 Robert Kendrick.
Shabaz, who will next compete in the USTA Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs, Dec. 17-19, in Atlanta, recently took time to answer questions for USTA.com about his outstanding fall, his experience attending a USTA training camp recently in Boca Raton, Fla., his goals for himself and his team this year and more.
USTA.com: Congrats on a great fall! With a second national title for you and Drew Courtney at the ITA/D’Novo All Americans and a great run in singles at the Charlottesville Challenger, you’ve got a lot of matches and a lot of wins under your belt. What are some things you attribute this success to?
Michael Shabaz: I have worked extremely hard on my fitness over this past summer and into the fall season. This has allowed me to play better defense, rather than always feeling like I have to play offense in defensive situations. My ability to play defense, neutralize, as well as play offense have all improved since I have improved my fitness and movement around the court. I also have put a lot of work in with my coaches on becoming a more complete player. Making my forehand a bigger weapon, improving my transition game, as well as my serve, has really made great strides.
USTA.com: Over Thanksgiving break, you were invited to a USTA training camp in Boca Raton, Fla. How was that experience? What is it like training alongside people who normally are your opponents?
Michael Shabaz: I have a tremendous amount of respect for college tennis, as well as the players who have worked hard and earned their way to the top of the collegiate game. They are really hard-working guys, and everyone gets along well. I believe many of these guys can do well at the next level. Everyone at the camp worked hard, and the USTA coaches really pushed us. I know everyone appreciated the effort put forth by the USTA coaches, as they clearly made the most out of the time we had. I believe I speak for everyone at the camp in saying we really benefited from it.
USTA.com: At that same camp, you won a qualifying tournament to earn a spot at the upcoming Australian Open Wild Card Playoffs. What are you working on as you prepare for this event? Is it difficult balancing final exams and training?
Michael Shabaz: I am excited about the opportunity to play in the Wild Card tournament and appreciated the opportunity to work my way into the draw. The field is very strong, and I will have to play my best. I am just continuing to work hard on my overall game and get my repetitions. I also continue to make my fitness a big focus.
I have a pretty good handle on my academics as a senior in college. I just have to make sure I manage my time well.
USTA.com: Moving forward to the spring, what are your goals for yourself and for your team?
Michael Shabaz: This is a special group of guys, who work hard and push each other every day. Everyone involved in Virginia tennis, from the players, coaches and the entire support staff, is completely committed to getting the most out of each player every day. Every year I have been at Virginia, this program, under the direction of Coach Boland, continues to develop. He expects excellence and a professional attitude out of everyone every single day, and everyone has followed his lead. I honestly cannot imagine a better developmental program, and I feel blessed to be part of it. We have not really set any outcome goals, as everyone knows what we can accomplish if we focus on what we can control. It has already been a great year, and I am really looking forward to making the most out of my last semester. My coaches really want each player to be ready for the professional tour, and this is my last semester before entering the tour full time.
USTA.com: Obviously, there is already a lot of talk about Virginia being a favorite for the national title. How do you and your teammates handle those kinds of expectations and the pressure that can come from that?
Michael Shabaz: Coach Boland has never allowed us to shy away from the opportunity that comes from high expectations and pressure. He has instilled the philosophy that we need to embrace it and focus on what we can control. We do not have any control over the end results, but we will come ready to play every day. There are so many good teams out there, and we have tremendous respect for all of them. We will just give it our best and embrace the opportunities we have.
USTA.com: You’re going into your senior year and fourth year playing for Coach Brian Boland. What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned from him?
Michael Shabaz: Coach Boland has taught me so much, on and off the tennis court. The biggest thing he has taught me is keeping a good perspective on life. Tennis is one of the toughest sports to cope with because of all the ups and downs players go through. Having a great perspective translates to a lot of success on the tennis court.
USTA.com: New to the team this year is Assistant Coach Andres Pedroso, who was formerly a USTA National Coach. What has Coach Pedroso added to the mix?
Michael Shabaz: Coach Pedroso has been a lot of fun to work with. He brings a very professional attitude to the court and really pushes all of us to our absolute limit. He has a ton of experience working with some of the best professionals in the game, which has all of our guys very excited and eager to get better.
USTA.com: There are a lot of great rivalries in the ACC. Which match do you look forward to the most?
Michael Shabaz: Honestly, there is not one particular team that we focus on or look at as a rival. The ACC is one of the best conferences in college tennis, and the depth is impressive. You have to come ready to play every match.
USTA.com: Student-athletes have little spare time. What do you like to do when you get a break from school and tennis?
Michael Shabaz: To be honest, we do have a little spare time, but at UVa, the focus is so much on preparing to play at the next level. With that said, UVa is a really fun place, and I enjoy spending time hanging out with friends and teammates around campus and in Charlottesville. This truly is a fun college town. The student-athletes at UVa are really close, so I do spend some time attending other sporting events. There are so many great programs on campus, as we finished No. 3 in the Directors Cup (ranks the best overall athletics programs in the country) last year, so obviously there are some high-level events to attend.
USTA.com: You were one of the top junior tennis players in the world, taking the Wimbledon junior boys’ doubles title in 2005. Tell us a little about your recruiting process and why you chose Virginia.
Michael Shabaz: I had a lot of success as a junior and was highly recruited by many universities across the country. Virginia was the top school on my list because of the way the recruiting process was handled and I believed that Coach Boland, the team and I had the right chemistry. I was impressed with the environment and the focus. I believed it had everything I was looking for in developing as a player and a person. I developed a great relationship with Coach Boland throughout the entire process and the current players during my official visit. When I took my official visit to UVa, I believed it was the perfect fit. I loved the environment and the people there. For me, the decision was a no-brainer. Deciding to attend UVa was the best decision I could have ever made.
USTA.com: Did you ever consider turning pro, or did you know you wanted to go to college first?
Michael Shabaz: As a kid, I always dreamed of being a professional tennis player. I never really considered college until I started playing Futures as a teenager. At that time, I realized how tough playing professional tennis was and that I was not mature enough physically or mentally to take on the tour. College has been an unbelievable experience for me because I have developed as a player and a person.
USTA.com: What are the biggest differences between junior tennis and college tennis?
Michael Shabaz: I loved my experience in junior tennis, and I had a lot of success. When I arrived at UVa, I really did not know what to expect, to be honest. Now that I have played college tennis going on my fourth year, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the level, and UVa has prepared me for professional tennis. My best assessment of the difference is college tennis has incredible depth, and it is another level beyond the junior game.
USTA.com: What advice do you have for junior tennis players who are starting the recruiting process?
Michael Shabaz: Try to become well informed, and be careful that you are listening to people who actually know what it is like to be a student-athlete in a particular program. I would rely heavily on the players currently on the team, and make sure you also feel comfortable with the coach. You need to be able to relate to the head coach, and make sure you do a fact check so you are separating fact from fiction. Go to a school that fits what you are looking for, rather than what everyone else around you wants. If you want to become a pro tennis player and get a great education, then coming to place like UVa is a great choice.