Shabaz ready to cap college career
Michael Shabaz really wasn't sure that college was for him when faced with the decision of what to do after high school. Tennis was his greatest passion, and part of him thought he should turn professional as a teenager.
But he decided on another path: Go to Virginia, a college program that was stockpiling talent under coach Brian Boland, for at least a year. See how it would go.
Four years later, Shabaz is soon to graduate with a degree in anthropology, has won two NCAA doubles titles and hopes to lead the Cavaliers to the national championship as a team ... and his pro dreams are more vivid than ever.
"The fact that I've stayed for four years has helped," said Shabaz, a 5-foot-10 senior from Fairfax, Va. "I have people around me that really care about me and wanted me to develop into the best tennis player and person I could. Ultimately, it has given me the ability to possibly succeed on the ATP Tour.
"When you come to college, you learn to compartmentalize your life in a lot of different ways. You learn to conduct yourself on and off the court. College gives you a different outlook and perspective. A lot of guys on tour, they know this is it; this is their job. Whereas I know tennis is not all I have."
Shabaz will be a triple threat for the upcoming NCAA tennis championships, the team portion of which will begin May 13. The Cavaliers, who have a 29-0 record, are the No. 1 seed in the team bracket for the fourth season in a row. Shabaz, 27-4 individually this season, is seeded third in the singles draw. He and partner Drew Courtney, 20-3, are the No. 2 seed in doubles.
Three other Cavaliers also will take part in the NCAA individual championships, which will be held at Stanford's Taube Tennis Center starting May 25, after the team tournament concludes there.
Alex Domijan is the No. 2 seed, the best seed for a freshman at the NCAA tournament since 1990, when Stanford's Jonathan Stark was No. 2. The other Cavaliers in the 64-player field are Shabaz, Courtney, Jarmere Jenkins and Sanam Singh. Domijan and Jenkins are in the doubles field with Shabaz and Courtney.
Virginia has been knocking hard on the door the past few years but has never won the NCAA men's team title in tennis. However, this seems to be the strongest group yet for the Cavs, who host the first two rounds. In February in Seattle, Virginia won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's National Team Indoor Championship for the fourth season in a row.
"This is the best team I've played on," Shabaz said. "These four years, we have had a tremendous amount of success, and it's been a great ride. But with this team, there are zero holes at any spot. We have guys that have played a lot of important moments in tennis. We've got the base to win a national championship."
In fact, it's shaping up as quite a spring in Charlottesville, Va. Not only is the men's tennis team ranked No. 1, but so is the baseball squad. Boland and UVa baseball coach Brian O'Connor are actually next-door neighbors.
"He's a good friend and great guy; his kids play in the backyard with mine," Boland said. "We don't see each other as much as you'd think, but we still get a chance sometimes to hang out. We've both been pretty busy."
Baseball's College World Series is in June, so Boland's team will be the first to get a crack at the national championship. That was his goal when he took over the Cavaliers program in 2002 after starting his coaching career at his alma mater, Indiana State, in 1997.
Virginia hasn't lost an ACC team duel since 2006, going undefeated the past five seasons. The past three years with Shabaz on board, the Cavaliers have lost just four times nationally, advancing to the NCAA tournament semifinals twice and the quarterfinals once. Shabaz won the NCAA doubles title in 2009 with Dominic Inglot -- the first ACC duo to accomplish that feat -- and in 2010 with Courtney.
"Doubles is a game of skill sets," Shabaz said. "I've had a lot of great coaches work with me. A lot of it is the ability to strike the ball well and get it to certain spots. And I serve and return equally well; I feel I have the overall game for the doubles court."
Shabaz's parents both emigrated from Iran, then met in the United States and settled in northern Virginia, where he grew up. Shabaz got started in tennis when he was about 7 years old. He recalls channel-surfing and stopping on Wimbledon, where he watched Andre Agassi play. That was an inspiration. There were a couple of tennis courts behind Shabaz's house then, and he asked his father, Vladimir, to go out there with him.
"He started feeding me balls, and I started knocking them one after another back," Shabaz said. "He thought I was just kind of lucky, so he kept doing it. And I fell in love with the game. I also had an older sister who picked up the sport around the same time, which allowed us to practice together, and it became pretty much our lives."
Shabaz won the Wimbledon boys' junior doubles title in 2005 and by then was seriously committed to pursuing tennis professionally. But he faced a tragedy the next year.
"He went through some really tough times with the passing of his father," Boland said. "He was also his coach and mentor. That was in September 2006, and he came here in 2007. In between, that was a difficult year for him. He wasn't sure if he was going to turn professional or go to college.
"As a coach, I don't think anything could possibly be more gratifying than seeing a young man grow as much as Michael has the last four years. Most importantly as a leader and someone who will continue to make an impact after his tennis days end. He started out as our No. 7 singles player and No. 3 doubles player, and now he's one of the best players in the country in both."
Shabaz couldn't be more thankful that he made the choice he did in delaying his pro career to attend Virginia. He and Singh, who is from India, are the Cavs' two seniors and will be lifelong friends after rooming together for four seasons. Shabaz has become a truly multidimensional singles player, which he acknowledges he wasn't before college. He'd love to win all three NCAA titles, of course, but one of them is his main focus before moving to the pro world.
"My No. 1 goal is the team championship," he said. "I feel confident we can get it done this year."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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