When John Nelson came to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 2003, he knew the men’s tennis program was a “sleeping giant,” just waiting to grow with players who wanted to work hard. After winning three straight Western Athletic Conference titles—including the program’s first ever—and making three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, Nelson now believes the Rainbow Warriors have the potential to be a top-20 program.
“We’re going for it. Our goal is to win the conference again, win in the NCAA Tournament. We have the ability and have the depth,” Nelson says. “Potential is one thing, it’s how they want it and if they’re staying disciplined every day.”
Discipline has served Nelson well. Active in martial arts from a young age and tennis since high school, he earned a bachelor’s in physical education and NCAA All-American and All-Star honors at Cal State Hayward before completing a master’s in education at Stanford. He played professionally in Europe and was ranked sixth in doubles with twin brother Jeff at the North California Men’s Open.
A third degree black belt in jujitsu, Nelson uses martial arts skills in his coaching…and it seems to work. Before coming to Mānoa, he racked up wins, conference coaching honors and national rankings at Cal State Hayward, UC Davis and San Diego State University.
In 2010, Coach Nelson was named WAC Coach of the Year for the second time since 2008. After six seasons, his Rainbow Warriors aren’t that far off from cracking the national top 20. They finished the season ranked 35th, capturing their third Western Athletic Conference title in a thrilling and nerve-racking manner and advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. The team lost just one senior, opening this season with talent and depth.
“I think the team is going to be better this season,” muses senior Jeremy Tweedt. “I’m looking forward to beating some top-20 teams, maybe top-10 teams, and going up in the rankings. We have a really good schedule. I’m looking forward to making the team a lot better than it has ever been.” He says his fellow players are “in a good mindset, and we’re in a positive dynamic.”
The Paris native, who transferred to Hawaiʻi last year after starting his collegiate career at Tennessee, knows something about being mentally strong. He had arrived in Hawaiʻi looking for a new start. He says he went through a “bad faith” phase, leading in matches and being at match point before losing them.
He secured the 2010 WAC championship with his come-from-behind win in front of a hostile Fresno State crowd. Wins by Dennis Lajola and Leo Rosenberg had tied the teams at 3–3 going into Tweedt’s match at No. 4 singles. Trailing 4–1 in the third and deciding set, he rallied, reeling off five straight points to clinch the Rainbow Warriors’ win and a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“I just had worked so hard that I was going to do what I had to do, whatever the score, because I had gone through a long hustle with tennis,” he says. “It was to prove to myself. I had nothing in my mind except do the right thing, which is what coach always says.”
“We never gave up,” says Lajola. “Jeremy definitely didn’t give up either, even when he was down in the last set. That was the biggest thing for us to overcome Fresno at their home.”
Lajola and Andreas Weber were both named to the All-WAC first team for singles. (Lajola is the first UH player so honored for three consecutive years). Rosenberg, who started the spring season with 14 straight wins, earned second-team honors. Weber and partner Philipp Eberhard received first-team honors in doubles.
Weber, who earned WAC first- or second-team honors during his entire four-year career and was named WAC Freshman of the Year in 2007, has left an indelible mark on the program. “Day in and out, he was really one of the backbones of our team,” Lajola says. “We’re missing him right now. On and off the court, he had a great attitude.”
Hawaiʻi lost to Pepperdine 4–0 at the NCAA Tournament to finish the season 12–8. The Rainbow Warriors believe they can go further in the NCAA Tournament this year. “What we have now is depth. Our goal is to reach the Sweet 16, maybe even further,” says Lajola, one of three local players on the team. Senior Daniel Llarenas is a Word of Life Academy graduate; freshman Jared Spiker won two state singles titles at Kalani High School.
There are a lot of talented tennis players, in Hawaiʻi, Nelson observes. “I want to get them to stay here and play for us.” He is also recruiting fans.
“We’re trying to get more supporters against these top teams,” Lajola says. “The crowd will help us get through them.”
The team opens its spring season at the UH Tennis Complex on the Mānoa campus against Louisville on Jan. 7 and Duke on Jan. 8.
In addition to the returning players, keep an eye on Jonathan Brooklyn, the 57th ranked player in England; Ukranian Dmytro Kovalyov, who has trained in Spain and played in International Tennis Federation events around the world; David Schuster, who finished in his state’s top four all four years at North Thurston High School in Lacey, Wash.; and Chris Meyer, a redshirt freshman ranked in the top 20 in doubles in Northern California.