After easily winning his first Big Ten match of the season against arch-rival Michigan State, junior Evan King of the Michigan men’s tennis team said something his coach didn’t like all that much at the time.
“I’m trying to run the table this year and get Big Ten Player of the Year, so this is definitely a good start to that,” King said on March 17 after his 6-0, 6-2, win over Spartan Aaron Pfister.
But after successfully finishing the Big Ten season an astonishing 11-0 and earning the honor of Big Ten Player of the Year, Michigan coach Bruce Berque doesn’t mind King’s comment so much anymore.
“I was a little concerned when (King) said that (in March),” Berque said. “But he put it out there, which showed he wasn’t afraid to say what he wanted. I don’t know if I would’ve recommended that he say that, but I thought he backed it up well by the work he put in.”
It may sound cliché, but the biggest catalysts behind King’s achievement were hard work and practice. Berque made it clear that King was not only Michigan’s most talented player this past season, but also the hardest worker and best practice player.
For King, consistent practice each and every day is a must and something he’s been working on for the past two years. To earn such an award, King needed to be his best each and every day.
“I stepped in everyday (at practice) and tried to go after it,” King said. “I had a specific goal in mind and I really wanted to give myself the best chance to achieve that goal. I just had to trust my practice, and preparation on match days to get that done.”
Despite winning nine of the eleven matches in straight sets, King’s path to an undefeated conference season wasn’t without adversity.
On the road against Minnesota, the Golden Gophers had just clinched the dual, but King was still on the court against Rok Bonin. Bonin took the first set over King in dominating fashion, 6-1.
But King responded, winning the second set, 6-3, before overtaking Bonin in a third-set tiebreaker to keep his undefeated bid alive.
“There was one match (against Minnesota) where it was really tenuous and (King) could have let it slip a little bit, but he dug his heels in and got it done when we were away and had already lost the dual,” Berque said.
Two weeks later, King found himself in another battle — this time, King took the first set. Illinois’ Dennis Nevolo had beat King in their last matchup, and also possessed the higher ranking at No. 4 in the country.
Nevolo wasn’t going to let Michigan out of Champaign with an easy win. He took the second set to send the match to a third, but it was King who ultimately decided the match and the dual, winning the third set, 6-3.
After King’s victory over No. 4 Nevolo, it seemed smooth sailing until the last week of the season when King would face Ohio State’s Blaz Rola.
In the final dual of the season against the Buckeyes, King made Rola look like any other Big Ten No. 1. The Michigan junior carved up the Slovenian native, 6-3, 6-3, for the Wolverines’ lone match victory that day.
The win over Rola completed the perfect season Big Ten season for King at No. 1 singles, making him the obvious choice for conference Player of the Year.
“The only thing that was under my control was to win every match,” King said. “The Big Ten Player of the Year is still a vote, but if I played all my matches at No. 1 and won them, I would be beating all the No. 1’s from other schools, so I figured that I could get that title. That was my goal and I was pumped that I was able to do that.”
Now that King has accomplished his first goal, he will set his sights on beating Middle Tennessee State on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After the Wolverines conclude their journey in the tournament, King will center his attention on winning the NCAA Individual Tournament as the nation’s No. 6 seed.