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DER TENNIS MEISTER: Pradella Has Made Most of His 'Semester Abroad'

May 10, 2013

By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider

From the building blocks of Benjamin Becker and Benedikt Dorsch that brought Baylor its first national championship in any sport, to Lars Poerschke, Dominik Mueller, Julian Bley and Marko Krickovic, the Baylor tennis program has kept a German pipeline flowing.

But that didn't seem to matter with Patrick Pradella.

"I think I recruited him for eight years, it seems like," said Baylor head coach Matt Knoll.

Instead of coming to Baylor out of high school, though, Pradella stayed at home in Bielefeld, Germany, for two years and went to Bielefeld University.

And his tennis game was going nowhere fast.

"School there is not set up for you to be an athlete at the same time," Knoll said. "You're actually in class seven hours a day, so there's just no chance to really do anything. He was just playing as a hobby. He wasn't in shape or playing a lot of tennis. . . . I'm sure (when he did play), it was for 45 minutes, like you and I would go out and hit it around."

That was part of the issue. Bothered by a knee injury and severely limited on practice time, Pradella wasn't sure if he could make it in the U.S.

"There were a lot of different reasons why I wasn't sure," he said. "I was injured before I came here, and I didn't know if I would be fit, if I might have problems with my knee again. And I wasn't in shape when I got here, because I couldn't practice at home. I was close to surgery . . . that would have been the next decision; or I might have just quit tennis."

Thankfully, he didn't.

Lars Behlen, another German connection who played on last year's team, ran into Pradella over the 2011 Christmas break and came back with the news that he might be interested in transferring. Back on the trail, Knoll and assistant coach Dominik Mueller "recruited him for months on end, trying to convince him to come and give it a look."

"He's like a lot of our guys, it's better than they think it's going to be," Knoll said of Baylor. "There's a 'Wow!' factor. Baylor shows pretty well, and it showed well, and he felt comfortable with the people here."

Coming to school in January, Pradella first looked at it as a "semester abroad" program. He would come in, play a little tennis, broaden his education and go back home.

"That was my plan," said the 6-foot-4, 185-pound right-hander. "And I think because I did better than I expected, that's why I'm probably staying here for one more year."

Knoll is even more convinced that Pradella will come back for his senior season, saying, "He's coming back. We've crossed that bridge."

An unbelievable addition for a team in desperate need of help at the top of the lineup, the 24th-ranked Pradella has been a rock, compiling a 12-2 record at the No. 1 singles position, a 20-4 mark overall and earning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors.

"You don't even have to know anything about tennis to see the game," Knoll said. "His speeds are hard and harder. The guy's got a 130-some-odd mph serve and hit winners from everywhere."

The one area of his game that needed the most work was his defense. Rather than trying to defend and extend points, he would just go for winners "and was happy to miss it or make it," Knoll said.

"He had no understanding of how to extend points and defend. And that's never going to be his strength, but everybody has to defend sometimes. Well, he does that now, and it's helped him a lot."

Pradella also had to get on board with Knoll's rigorous training routine, which is designed to "get his guys in shape and stronger than everybody else out there," he said.

"And for me, it was pretty hard, because I was really in bad shape when I came here," Pradella said. "But I think I got through it, and I'm getting better and better. That's one of the things I can improve is my fitness level, and I think I can do it here very well. . . . It is so different than it is in Europe and in Germany, and in the beginning it takes you a while. But if you get behind it and understand the process and the thinking, then you are fine."

Repetition has also helped his game. Instead of the casual once-a-week sessions, grueling two- and three-hour practices are now the norm.

"If you play once or twice in a week, you're not that safe in your strokes," he said. "When you do it every day and you hit 10,000 forehands every week instead of just 1,000 forehands, it's different, obviously. That's why I feel much safer from the baseline now."

Thrown into the lineup immediately, Pradella got an invaluable lesson in a 5-2 loss at Tulsa on Feb. 3. Catching himself glued to the big scoreboard that showed all the scores, "I got more and more nervous because we lost sets. I felt pressure to win this match, and that's why I got worse and worse."

Playing in the No. 3 spot at that time, Pradella lost to Tulsa's Grant Ive, 3-6, 6-1, 7-6(7).

"But I think that was a good way to learn something," he said. "You learn how to handle it. I think everybody looks at the scoreboard at some point. You just learn how to handle it and play your game, no matter what the other scores are. Just play your game, and you will do well. That's what I didn't do in Tulsa, and that's why I lost there."

Baylor (20-5), the 13th overall national seed and top seed for the first two rounds of the NCAA Championships at the Hurd Tennis Center, will likely see the 25th-ranked Golden Hurricane (15-7) again. The Bears open against Prairie View A&M (9-15) at 6 p.m. Friday, while Tulsa faces 43rd-ranked Michigan State (14-13) at 3, with the winners playing at 6 p.m. Saturday for a chance to move on to the final site in Urbana, Ill.

"You can see it in the lineup. It's a completely different team now," Pradella said. "And that was indoors; everything was different. We are much better; and probably they will be better, because they've had time to practice, too. But as a team, I think we have taken some big step forward in the last weeks and months."

Knoll said that match "seems like it was seven years ago, just because we had so many new guys." Pradella and Tony Lupieri, another first-semester transfer, were playing their first significant dual match; freshman Julian Lenz wasn't in singles, "because he was a little hurt"; and senior Roberto Maytin "had been here for about 10 minutes" after visa difficulties in returning from Venezuela.

"It was just a really different dynamic," Knoll said. "We've played a lot of good tennis since then, grown a lot, and I think we'll be a lot different team."

That's the other attraction for Pradella to stay past this season. Other than Maytin, Baylor returns everyone from a team that swept to the Big 12 regular-season championship and won 10 matches in a row before a 4-2 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship final.

"I feel like we have a pretty good team next year and can improve," he said. "And maybe if it's not enough this year to win a championship, but next year, maybe, because everybody is still young and has a lot of chances to improve. . . . I think every round we get through is good. And if we get through the first two rounds, we can reach anything, I think."

Prairie View is winless on the road this season (0-7) and 0-4 all-time against the Bears, including a 7-0 loss last year in Waco.

After winning the Conference USA regular-season title, Tulsa was upset by 35th-ranked Memphis in the postseason tournament. The Golden Hurricane has a pair of nationally ranked singles players in No. 41 Japie de Klerk and 56th-ranked Clifford Marsland. Michigan State, which lost to Minnesota in the Big Ten quarterfinals, boasts one ranked player in No. 113 Aaron Pfister.