By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA – Head coach Matt Hill is in the first year of turning the USF men’s tennis program into a national contender. Expectations and the level of play have been raised while Hill credits assistant coach Brandon Wagner for accelerating the process.
“He’s been an integral part of us building what we’re building,” Hill said. “There’s not a chance I could have done it without him.”
Wagner joined USF last October after putting together an eye-catching tennis resume. The Tampa native became an All-American on a Georgia team that won two SEC titles (2001-02) and a national championship in 2001. The Bulldogs made a return trip to the national championship finals in 2002 before Wagner was selected to the USTA professional rookie team later that year.
Wagner returned to Georgia as a volunteer assistant coach from 2003-04 and later coached a number of players in the pro ranks. He helped John Isner get into the ATP's top 80 for the first time and has guided others to numerous pro challenger titles in the U.S. and Europe.
“He’s worked with the highest level of players,” Hill said. “He’s worked with so many top pros that he comes down to the collegiate level and he just sees all the areas that are lacking. A lot of coaches around the world are constantly only working with juniors or ATP players.”
Wagner has brought the pro mentality with him to USF for its pursuit of reaching the highest stature in college tennis. It all starts with putting in maximum effort on the practice court, which has been a gradual process in year one.
A two-hour session consists of going 100 percent all the time, which was something new to the Bulls before the new coaches arrived. Wagner said the goal is to string together a whole week of high intensity that will carry over to competition.
“Tampa is a pro tennis town and we’re making it into that training environment,” he said. “We’ve started it and we’ll continue to progress in the next few years until we get it exactly where we want it.”
Hill said Wagner gives USF something many other programs around the country don’t have.
“On the court he’s phenomenal. Forget about assistant or a head coach, he’s one of the best on-court coaches in college,” Hill said.
Wagner is now seven months into the college game and said USF has improved in many areas heading into a two-match weekend to wrap up the regular season. The Bulls face MTSU on Saturday at noon in Orlando and take on UCF the following day at 11 a.m.
“It’s been fun taking the experience and information from coaching at the highest level and then transferring that to the players here,” Wagner said. “They’ve responded really well.”
The USF coaching staff knows making the program elite takes time and Wagner is more than willing to see the process all the way through.
“I’ve grown up with this sport my whole life and I’ve been around a lot of great coaches. I wanted the chance to give back my knowledge and my information to other players,” he said. “It’s fun to finally be in college tennis, get on the court and really shine at my best coaching these kids. I love what I do and I hope I can be here for many years to come.”