The year was 1994. Mark Merklein had just clinched the first set of the match against USC’s Wayne Black, 6-2. But Black, who would eventually go on to win four doubles Grand Slams, wasn’t going to let Merklein cruise to a national championship.
Black and Merklein battled to a second-set tiebreaker before Black pulled it out, 10-8, to send the championship match to a third set. Merklein, Florida’s all-time leader in singles victories, wasn’t going to be denied. In the third set, Merklein finished strong to beat the Zimbabwean, 6-4, winning the national title as a member of the Florida Gators.
Merklein accomplished a life-long dream, and he was already gearing up for his next goal of becoming a successful professional tennis player.
College tennis players dream of earning All-American status, winning national championships and some day playing on the professional circuit. For many, this dream is just that — a dream. But for some members of the Michigan men’s tennis team, such as junior Evan King, this dream isn’t so farfetched. The fantasy becomes more realistic when somebody who lived it before helps make it possible.
This past season, Michigan shocked the college tennis world when it hired Merklein as assistant coach. Merklein, who played his college tennis under current Michigan head coach Bruce Berque at Florida, gives the Wolverines more than just an experienced coach.
“I don’t think our guys needed (Merklein) to know they wanted to play professional tennis and win a national title,” Berque said. “But when you have somebody who’s done that and who’s had success coaching players who’ve done that, I think that’s really meaningful.”
The story starts eight months before Evan King, the Wolverines’ oldest player, was even born. Merklein and Berque were both new to the Florida program in 1990. Merklein had just committed to play tennis for the Gators, while Berque had just accepted the assistant coaching position — his first coaching gig in men’s college tennis.
Berque and Merklein led the Gators to their first SEC championship in 25 years in 1994, but Merklein’s individual accomplishments were more astonishing.
Merklein didn’t waste any time in his first two years, earning All-American status as a freshman and a sophomore. He followed those accolades the next two seasons by winning the doubles National Championship as a junior and the 1994 NCAA singles title to close out his college career.
Almost immediately after becoming the first Gator ever to win a National Championship, Merklein turned pro. Berque jumped to the pro circuit one year later to become Merklein’s personal coach.
During his 11 year professional career, Merklein learned the ups and downs of professional tennis. In singles, his ranking hovered inside the top 200, reaching its highest point of No. 160 in 1997. But doubles was a different story. Merklein was resilient.
Merklein won four doubles titles. And in 2004 — one of Merklein’s last seasons as a professional tennis player — he reached No. 37 in the world with doubles partner James Blake.
Merklein retired from professional tennis in 2005, but he wasn’t quite finished with the game. Just a few months later, he took a coaching position at the USTA Development Program, where he had a chance to work with some of the country’s top junior players, molding them into top-100-ranked professionals.
During his coaching stint at USTA, Merklein had the opportunity to coach his former doubles partner Blake for two years. Blake was in his first full year back from an injury on the ATP circuit when Merklein joined him as coach. After a year together, Merklein coached Blake to his highest singles ranking ever at No. 4 in the world.
In 2011, five years after Merklein coached Blake, he got a call from a long-time friend and colleague about an assistant coach opening at Michigan.
“(Berque and I) had been talking for a while now about an opportunity to come here and coach,” Merklein said. “I just thought it was a good time; the team looked good, the future looked bright, and I thought I definitely wanted to get back into college tennis again. Michigan is an unbelievable school, and it presented an unbelievable opportunity.”
When Berque was asked to describe his reasons for hiring Merklein, his praises were endless. He commended Merklein’s tremendous playing and coaching experience at the collegiate and professional levels, in addition to his exquisite recruiting contacts and resources.
Berque also stressed how important Merklein’s accomplishments are for his team. Every day, each Michigan player has an opportunity to learn from somebody who has been there before. Merklein had some success on the professional tour, but was never able to win a singles title or crack the top 100.
“I try to help them achieve their goals to do the best that they can,” Merklein said. “And it’s not that I met every goal I had, either. I had high goals that I didn’t reach, and maybe there’s a reason, and I can kind of help them do what I didn’t do.”
But perhaps Berque’s most compelling reason for hiring Merklein is his intangibles, the qualities that few other coaches in the country could bring to a program.
“He’s got a really special gift for connecting with players, and he’s got a knack for getting the most out of his players,” Berque said. “You can do all the research you want, and you’ll never find anybody who’ll say a bad thing about (Merklein). He’s a real terrific, genuine person, and guys enjoy his coaching style, which I think really compliments mine.”
While Merklein works with every one of the Wolverines, Evan King commands his special attention. In 2009, King left the USTA Development Program in Florida as TennisRPI’s No. 1 recruit in the country to don the maize and blue. After King left the program to come to Michigan, Merklein still kept an eye on him as he acclimated to the college game.
“When I wasn’t coaching him, I was always thinking that this guy has the talent to (win an NCAA title),” Merklein said. “And I just thought, ‘How is he losing some of these matches?’ ”
Now, Merklein has the opportunity to work with King every day, up close and personal.
“The biggest thing he’s helped me with is, I think, the everyday approach that, if you want to become a successful college player and go on to being a successful professional, you have to treat every practice intently,” King said. “There’s always someone working really hard out there, so you just have to stay on track.”
King is all-in when it comes to the advice Merklein has for him. For King, Merklein’s success as a player speaks for itself. As a coach, Merklein has inspired King to work towards winning a national title. But, rest assured, Merklein only wants King to achieve the goals he has set for himself.
King also spoke highly of Merklein’s tremendous resources in the tennis community. Merklein even had his former pupil and doubles partner Blake give King a call. King had a hard time holding back his excitement and was “giddy like no other” when he was on the phone with the former No. 4 player in the world.
As Blake’s coach, Merklein was responsible for the intense fitness program that helped get him back into shape after his 2004 injuries. With King, Merklein is implementing a similar training program, hoping to elevate King’s game to the highest level.
“We’ve just got to start working harder, and we’ve done that and worked on his fitness, getting him stronger,” Merklein said. “He has come a long way, but for him to go after what he really wants, day in and day out, he has to be the same player that he is when he is at his best.
“That’s tough for anyone to do. But he’s learning and working harder to be more consistent now, and I think he’s going to do well.”
When Michigan hired Merklein last summer, it sent shockwaves through the tennis world. The thought of a USTA coach moving from Florida to Ann Arbor to become a college assistant coach was beyond belief.
More than 15 years removed from Florida, Merklein is happy to be back in college tennis again. But he was careful to stress that he was happy to be back in college tennis as a coach. While he cites elbow pain and age as to why his playing days are over, even King isn’t so sure.
“I’ve been playing with him in practice, and he’s still got it,” King said. “He can take some sets off of people in practice, including myself. It’s cool to have that kind of person around every day.”
Whether it’s bonding with the team, drilling them in practice, or playing practice matches against the Wolverines’ top singles players, Merklein is more than just Michigan’s assistant.
Merklein is a tremendous resource in the tennis community, a fantastic hitting partner and a tangible example of what college tennis players dream of becoming. But most importantly, Merklein has been able to get the best out of the Wolverines. Not by yelling and screaming, but by helping his players understand what it is they want to achieve and how they can get there.
“I think I have a good feel for the guys, and what they want and need, and I try to make this fun,” Merklein said. “This is why they started playing the game – they love the sport. I am trying to get every ounce I can out of each guy and, at the same time, I don’t want guys walking out of the facility not knowing what I am doing.
“We’re going to work hard, and some of it’s going to be tough, but I want them to have fun and love this. This is as good as it gets right now. The tour is a lonely thing, but playing here with your friends is fun, and hopefully I let them enjoy it.”