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The pro you don’t know: Evan King

James Weaver/Daily
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BY MATT RUDNITSKY
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 19, 2011

We all know Denard Robinson.

Just like we all know Mike Martin, Darius Morris, Tim Hardaway Jr. and every other Michigan athlete with a legitimate shot at becoming a successful pro athlete.

They look the part, don’t blend in and can’t even walk through the Diag without turning a few nearby students into the likes of 12-year old girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

But what most students don’t realize is that there is a guy on campus who already is a professional athlete — sort of.

That guy is sophomore Evan King, No. 1 singles player for the No. 22 Michigan men’s tennis team.

A guy who has been virtually everywhere that matters in tennis, from Michigan's own Varsity Tennis Center on State Street all the way to the All-England Club in the Wimbledon district of London, England.

But nobody in Ann Arbor seems to notice.

***

The funny thing is that before Evan King became the Wolverines' top-ranked singles player, he was in the spotlight.

Now? Not so much.

At a school dominated by football, hockey and basketball, a tennis star isn’t exactly hounded all day by star-struck students, no matter how talented he is.

“I’ll run into a couple people (on campus) who played tournaments around the Midwest and ended up coming here,” King said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, I'm a tennis fan, I know about you — you're a top recruit!’ But it’s extremely rare.”

But before college, King was featured on the cover of RISE magazine (now ESPN RISE) and even served on a committee supporting Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid.

“It was just a bunch of hometown people who would have been the right age in 2016, in their prime, to be in the Olympics.” King said. “It was a great experience because we got to speak in front of the Olympic committee, show off our skills just a little bit, kind of demo stuff around.

“It was fun to meet a bunch of different world-class athletes that were my same age.”

While King might downplay the experience, it’s pretty clear what it meant.

At just 16 years old, the kid was considered a future Olympian. But in Ann Arbor, he’s more anonymous than the guys who produced the “The Pursuit of Jappiness” video.

***

Standing at the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, sliding across the fresh red clay of Roland Garros and patrolling the most famous courts in our country at Flushing Meadows would make any tennis player weak in the knees. It just doesn’t get any better.

But at 19 years old, Evan King has done it all.

King, who before college was No. 1 in the USTA 18-and-under rankings and No. 14 in the ITF rankings, was at the forefront of junior tennis as a teen. That means King was ranked above every junior tennis player in the US and was ranked 14th internationally.

With that came opportunities most teenagers could only dream of.

He got to play at the 2008 Junior Davis Cup — tennis’s version of the World Cup — in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where he went 8-0, leading the United States to the title over Argentina.

He got to play at three of the junior Grand Slams — Wimbledon, the French Open and the US Open — sharing a locker room with the game’s biggest stars, marveling wide-eyed at Rafael Nadal’s gargantuan biceps and Roger Federer’s unmatched elegance.

He got to do just what Nadal, Federer and the other professionals do every year — the only difference being the “junior” preceding all of the legendary tournament names. And soon enough, that word will disappear for him.

“It was awesome,” King said. “It was a little bit overwhelming at first; you’re in the same place, the same locker rooms as all of the famous players. You’ve got a badge; you feel important and can go into places where the normal population can’t really go.

“Every time, I see on TV — I didn’t play junior Australian which I kind of wish I could have done — when like the French Open is on, or Wimbledon is on, or the US Open is on, they’ll show an aerial view of all the grounds and I’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I was there.’ Or, ‘Oh yeah, I played on that court.’

“Or, ‘You remember that one time I was eating crêpes in Paris?’ ”

King has had some success at the majors, too, most notably as a 2009 doubles quarterfinalist at Junior Wimbledon.

And in his favorite event — the Junior US Open — King, playing with his friend Denis Kudla, took out the tournament’s top seed in 2009 playing doubles. He also pulled an upset of the No. 5 seed in the singles, but in both draws, fell in the following round.

Then in 2010, he took out the tournament’s No. 6 seed in the first round, cruised to a double-bagel, 6-0, 6-0 victory in the second round and then finally lost to the No. 10 seed Kudla, who took champion Jack Sock to three-sets in the finals.

“Tennis has taken me to Brazil, it has taken me to Europe,” King said. “It has taken me everywhere in North America.

“I guess not many 18, 19 year-old guys can really say that they’ve been all around the world.”

Guess not.

***

Evan King went to a normal high school, once.

He even played in the Illinois State Championships for tennis, winning easily as a sophomore.

“I think my closest match was 6-1, 6-3, or something like that,” King said, casually downplaying a feat most high-schoolers would love to accomplish.

“(After winning state) I had to really make the decision, was (tennis) something I really, really wanted to focus on and improve on? I knew my development would kind of stunt if I stayed at home. So that was a really, really big decision the summer after my sophomore year.

“I decided to go to Florida to train at the USTA Training Academy, just for tennis basically, to try and improve my game.”

Located in Boca Raton, Fla., the USTA Training Center chooses a select few of the nation's top junior players and trains them full-time — while providing them a Kaplan online education — for the sole purpose of molding them into professional tennis players.

“It was basically all about tennis down there,” King said. “Their goal down there is basically to produce a top-100 tennis player.”

Florida was no walk in the park. And it wasn’t high school tennis. It wasn’t even college tennis. It was tougher.

Playing with the country’s brightest young stars — the class included some current pros and No. 19-ranked Ohio State sophomore Chase Buchanan — King went through a grueling daily schedule for two years. Buchanan ended the recruiting process as the No. 1 prospect in the 2009 class.

“So, pretty strict schedule day-to-day,” King said, describing his daily routine. “Just wake up — it was online schooling, so you’d have like two hours of study hall in the morning — then you had tennis, then you had fitness, then you had lunch.

“Then you had another two hours of school, and then, tennis, fitness, lunch, and just repeat, Monday through Friday. And then Saturday morning, that again, and then you kind of got Sunday off.”

So when he made the transition to college athletics — something that normally involves a lot of sweat and pain mixed with vomit for a freshman — King was relatively unfazed.

“There was more tennis in Florida because the school schedule was a ton more flexible,” King said. “Everything was online so it was basically at your own discretion to do the work. So instead of playing once a day for three hours like we do here, we played twice a day there for four hours. But conditioning and weight lifting was pretty similar-type stuff.

“It was a pretty smooth transition from Florida to Michigan, I think, for me.”

Try telling that to your average college freshman, athlete or not.

***

Fortunately for King, the money involved in NCAA tennis pales in comparison to football — tennis players don't have to deal with Reggie Bush or Cam Newton-like temptations.

Still, he was in their league as a recruit. And he got his fair share of attention.

“I really enjoyed (the recruiting process) because every match I played during the summer of my junior year and the fall of my senior year, there were tons of college coaches watching every single match I played,” King said.

“You get calls and they discuss their programs — what they can give to you and what you can gain, stuff like that. I mean, I really, really enjoyed the process.”

King ranked as high as the nation’s No. 2 prospect by Tennisrecruiting.net and No. 1 in the TennisRPI rankings — the same system used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee in basketball.

He won the 18-and-under singles title at the 2009 Easter Bowl ITF Championships in Rancho Mirage, Calif. — one of the most prestigious tournaments in junior tennis — and the 2008 USTA National Clay Courts title, as a 16-year old playing in the 18-and-under division.

But that only scratches the surface of King's junior success.

With a chance to go to nearly any college he wanted to, King faced a tough choice. Growing up in Chicago and watching Northwestern tennis, he had an affinity for the Big Ten.

So he didn’t struggle much in narrowing down his choices to Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois.

But choosing Michigan wasn’t exactly a no-brainer. Ohio State and Illinois are Big Ten and national powerhouses. As a competitive kid, it’s tough to pass that up. But King did it anyway.

Citing the balance between the styles of Michigan’s head coach, Bruce Berque and its assistant coach, Sean Maymi — not to mention their vast knowledge of the game and stellar reputations — King chose to go blue.

“And out of the three, academically, I mean, if it was close, then (Michigan) is so much better,” King said, smiling.

Now that’s a Michigan man.

***

King’s freshman year was solid, but unspectacular.

Playing mostly No. 2 singles — with a few matches at No. 1 — he went 21-13 in singles as a freshman, with a 14-9 record in dual-matches.

That was good enough to earn him All-Big Ten Honors and to be named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. But it didn't make a huge splash on the national stage.

On the other hand, as a sophomore, King is winning at a rate that would make Charlie Sheen jealous.

Prior to losing on Saturday, he had won 12 matches in a row at No. 1 singles. And nearly all of them came against ranked opponents, including a straight-sets win over No. 6 Reid Carleton of Duke.

The Wolverines have faced eight top-25 teams in their first seventeen dual-matches, but King has emerged nearly unscathed, going 15-2 while facing each team’s top dog.

He’s gone from being (laughably) unranked to start the season, to No. 21 nationally. And if he keeps up his current pace, that ranking will keep climbing. Fast.

“Individually, I’d love to win (individual) NCAA’s,” King said. “That’s an extremely tough task; there are a ton of really solid players in college.

“But that’s my ultimate college goal: to win NCAA’s.”

***

Trailing No. 45 Wake Forest senior Jonathan Wolff 5-0 on Saturday, Feb. 5, King demonstrated what sets him apart from the average racket-slamming, profanity-howling player.

Peering at his perennially-calm demeanor, you’d never know if he was trailing the No. 45 player in the nation 5-0, cruising to a 6-2, 6-3 trouncing of No. 6 Carleton or casually beating one of his buddies in a game of ping-pong, as he so enjoys.

No matter the situation, King is always relaxed, but locked in.

In the match against Wolff, King kept his cool, taking 14 of the next 17 games to secure a 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory.

“I never was rattled because I knew I had to fix a couple of things and the match would be mine,” King said after the win.

“I got a game plan, started dictating a little bit more, started using the crowd and enjoying it and was just having a good time out there.”

Most tennis players aren’t “having a good time” trailing 5-0 in the first set of a big match.

Still, after whipping a forehand passing shot worthy of the highlight reel on a dead sprint that bear-hugged the line, King didn’t hesitate to let out a Nadal-esque “Come on!” that ignited the record-setting crowd, forcing them to gather their sunken jaws off the Varsity Tennis Center’s carpeted floor.

Moments like that aren’t out of the ordinary for King, who constantly pumps himself (and his teammates) up with booming “Go Blue” and “Here we go Michigan” cries that can probably be heard in his native city of Chicago.

You can hear King yell. You can hear him cheer. And it's loud.

But his yells will always be encouraging. They won’t come out of frustration.

You won’t see him sulk. And you won’t see him choke.

“The mental component is so big because once you get to a certain level in tennis, everybody can pretty much hit every shot,” King said. “So it’s basically what you do with what shot, when you decide to make a decision, how cool you are under pressure.”

King's balance of enthusiasm, relaxation and ferocity is a sight to behold, one that engages the crowd and lifts his intensity, but somehow, keeps him calm.

“I’m a really, really relaxed individual,” explained King, leaning back in his chair, with his trademark sincere, serene, focused look pinned to his face.

You just can’t faze him.

***

King won’t buckle under pressure.

But for any future opponents, all hope isn’t lost. There is something that makes King’s cool crack.

“(My serve speed) is like a sore subject with me,” King said, gritting his teeth, reluctantly continuing. “I played US Open juniors this year and we had radar guns and all that really cool stuff, and I couldn’t break 120. I got 119. I cannot break 120.

“I was really embarrassed about that, but I got 119. I didn’t purposely go like, ‘Boom,’ see how hard I could actually hit it, but in the course of the match, I didn’t break 120. I always thought that I could crank it up a little bit higher than that, but I don’t know.

“I wish we had radar guns here, so I could see that, but 119 I guess is officially the fastest I’ve served. But I’m pretty sure I can get higher than that, so next time I’m in that kind of situation I’m just gonna go crank one as fast as I possibly can just to know.”

***

Because of the sheer nature of professional tennis, a collegiate player is actually allowed to play professional tournaments while retaining his amateur status.

King has played multiple futures-level tournaments — sort of the Double-A ball of tennis — because the purses at the tournaments are low enough that the money he can make is less than his travel expenses. And if it is more, he can simply refuse the prize money.

He hasn’t exactly been Roger Federer, but King has had success professionally, with a 15-12 singles record. He even has a professional title to his name, winning a doubles tournament in Godfrey, Ill. with his friend Jordan Cox.

How many college athletes can say that?

***

Just because Evan King chose to stay away from the grind of the pro tour for a few years doesn’t mean he won’t get there.

King knows that the old-school notion of college tennis being a hindrance to development is a bunch of Oscar Meyer’s finest bologna, and he’s determined to make tennis his career.

“I just want to be the best I possibly can, and hopefully that means traveling the world playing ATP-level stuff, so that would mean I’m probably a top-50 or 60 player, something like that.

“(My goal is) just traveling the world, making money, playing tennis. That would be unbelievable.”

Still, the adjustment from the college game to the pros is a big one. King realizes that in college, he won't play anybody older than 23 years, even in the most extreme case. But he could be playing a futures tournament this summer, matched up against a 29-year old veteran who oozes experience and savvy.

“I’m not saying the level is any better (in the pros) because there are a ton of great guys in college, but I guess the pro guys have more experience,” King said.

“And I know that everything (in my game) can improve. I’d love to have a bomb serve by the time I get out of here.”

While King’s a great athlete with top-end speed, his game is nothing like Rafael Nadal’s — even if both are lefties and have stellar baseline forehands.

“I guess I kind of aspire to be a player like (ATP No. 9 Fernando) Verdasco,” King said. “Pretty big forehand, solid off both sides, spends most of his time on the baseline, but can come in (to net).

“I’ve got a long way to go to get to that level, but I try to model myself as that type of player. I don’t think anyone can realistically model their game off of a pro, but I try to play like that.”

***

King had a choice. There’s no “one-and-done” rule in tennis.

He could be a pro, right now.

Successful pro tennis players, especially Americans, who took the college route are a steadily growing trend — like James Blake, John Isner and Bob and Mike Bryan — but they’re still the minority.

Stars like Andre Agassi, who, per CNN, was once a two year-old prodigy “running around with a racket taped to his hand and sleeping with a tennis ball over his head,” turned pro as early as 16, putting guys like King behind the eight ball while pursuing higher education.

But King stands by his choice to go to college.

“I think for each individual it’s different because most pro tennis players really don’t reach their success until they’re like 22, 23, 24 years old,” King said. “So that means if a guy turns pro at 17, that’s a good five or six years that they’re struggling week in, week out, playing futures and challenger level tournaments, with a ranking somewhere around the 500s, traveling week-to-week to different countries.

“And I mean, for me, I’d rather be in a stable environment; I know my game is improving here. But for other people, they’d rather be out there playing tournaments and traveling the world. I couldn’t really deal with playing a tournament 20 weeks out of the year and if you have a good year you win one, maybe two of those tournaments when you’re my age.”

***

What if he had taken the other path?

Two of King’s best friends, Denis Kudla and Jordan Cox, skipped college and went straight to the pros. It hasn’t worked out badly for them, either. Kudla already owns a Futures tournament singles title and is ranked No. 462 in the world. Cox is ranked No. 449.

“I think for me it’s the right choice,” King said. “But (Kudla and Cox) are pro right now floating around the 500 (ranking) range, and that was the right choice for them. But this was definitely the right choice for me.”

Still, it makes you wonder where King would be right now if he hadn’t gone to Michigan.

“(Kudla and Cox) are the same age (as me). We traveled to Europe in juniors together, played the junior grand slams, we were doubles partners, and we’re all the same level. So for me, it’s kind of interesting to see who will be the most successful. It’s kind of like a little friendly rivalry, which is cool.”

We're all the same level.

Let that sink in. King — just a 19-year old sophomore — is on the same level as two guys ranked above all but about 450 guys in the entire world.

And if you want to talk strictly in terms of our country — as Americans often love to do — Cox is the 29th-ranked American while Kudla is 30th.

Just think about it. Say all goes according to plan and Denard Robinson is picked near the end of the first round of the NFL Draft in a couple of years. That would mean he’s one of the best 32 players in the country in that year's draft, one of about 1,700 players in the NFL.

But King might just be as good as all but 30 people in the country, of any age. Right now.

So you should probably get to know his name.

It’s Evan King.