Freshman finds quick doubles success

Justin Roberts. ORACLE PHOTO/SEBASTIAN CONTENTO

Justin Roberts first became serious about tennis when he was 10 years old, playing in the Eddie Herr International Junior Championships in Bradenton. 

After playing against limited competition in his native country of the Bahamas since he was 6, he was in awe of the talented athletes playing in the tournament.

“It’s where the best players in the world for each age group play and I saw the level there and I wanted to be the best one there and that pushed me to work harder,” Roberts said.

His intensified dedication to the sport pushed him to move to the U.S. at age 12 in search of better competition and training. He trained there for three years before his coach took a job coaching in Holland. Only 15 at the time, Roberts decided he would follow his coach and test his talent against European competition. 

“It was very different,” Roberts said. “The weather was pretty cold, cloudy all the time. We played indoors on red clay. It was different, but a good experience for me.”

As a result of his training, he won the Almere ITF Singles and Doubles championships in 2012 and 2013. 

But while Roberts was experiencing great success in Holland, he wanted to experience what college tennis had to offer. Due to his back-to-back championships and athleticism, Roberts was recruited by some of the top NCAA tennis programs.

Even with offers from multiple top-10 schools in the country, Roberts ultimately chose USF because of the team culture. 

“Any time you’re recruiting against the best programs in the country, you never know how it’s going to play out, but I definitely felt like the chemistry was really healthy on his visit,” coach Matt Hill said. “I know what this program is about and what it stands for matches up very well with his belief system and his character in regards to partying and things like that.”

Now Roberts is nearing the end of his freshman season and is a part of one of the best doubles teams in the nation with senior Oliver Pramming. 

Last season, the 6-foot-3 senior was paired with junior Ignacio Gonzalez-Muniz and the two finished the season ranked as the 90th best doubles tandem in the nation.

But still, Hill said their personalities weren’t always conducive to winning big matches. 

“We felt like Oliver and Ignacio’s personalities, while they’re both incredible doubles players, were very similar,” Hill said. “So when they were clicking, they were by far one of the best teams in the country, but when they were off, neither personality was the one to step up and pull them back into a high level. So they took a couple losses. Just a few, but for at the level we’re wanting to play at, we can’t allow for that.”

To remedy the situation, Hill chose to go against common practice and pair a senior and freshman together. 

“(Roberts) has a great serve, he has great intuition at the net,” Hill said. “He’s pretty confident in himself to say the least, so pairing him with Oliver to play high in the lineup wouldn’t be an issue for Justin even though he’s a freshman. Some guys when they come in might not be comfortable playing that high, but I knew Justin would thrive in that situation.” 

And while the two are currently ranked 36th in the nation and play as the Bulls’ No. 1 doubles team, adjusting to each other wasn’t the smoothest transition. 

“When we first started playing together, it was awful to be honest,” Roberts said. “We started really bad in the fall.”

The two responded to the rocky start by spending as much time together as they could, trying to become acclimated to each other.

“We spend pretty much the whole day together,” Pramming said. “We are on the court together, we are off the court together. Pretty much all day we are around each other, so we have gotten to know each other really well.”

After spending almost an entire season playing together, Roberts said the two are now on the same page with their communication. 

“You can tell (when each other needs help),” Roberts said. “When you spend time with someone like that, off the court as well, you can tell when he’s getting bothered by something. You can see it, you can feel it.”

With multiple wins against nationally ranked teams, including a victory against the No. 4 doubles team in the nation at Ohio State, the duo’s personalities are meshing even better than Hill could have foreseen. 

“He brings in new energy, a new hunger,” Pramming said. “I’m a senior, so it’s nice to have some new energy and it’s been great to be paired with him.” 

And while Roberts is firing up Pramming during the final stretch of his senior year, Roberts is also benefitting from the senior’s laid-back demeanor, as Hill said his emotions had gotten the best of him in matches earlier this season. 

“Oliver is very laid-back and doesn’t mind pressure situations at all, he controls his emotions well whereas Justin was always hyper and his emotions were teetering,” Hill said. “Oliver has calmed him down and allowed him to have a little more fun in difficult times, so that’s been really healthy.”

The 6-foot freshman said he did have to catch up to his teammates physically when he first arrived, but the toughest change he had to make was his mental approach.

“I struggled a lot in the beginning, breathing-wise, keeping up with the physicality of it,” Roberts said. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger in that sense. Mentally, just knowing more how to play my own game and figuring out how to play tactically against certain opponents, that’s changed a lot since I’ve gotten here.”

Hill said Roberts’ work on his mental game was difficult because he had only needed his athleticism to win up until he arrived at USF. 

“He has so many weapons, it’s more of when to use those weapons,” Hill said. “A lot of guys struggle with the ability to have those weapons. For him, he struggles with having nine different options to win, but he needs to learn to choose the path of least resistance.”

With only four more matches remaining before the AAC Championships begin April 16, Roberts and Pramming are gearing up for a run at the NCAA Doubles Championships. 

“We’ve won a few good matches against ranked opponents, so it’s put us in a position where we may be able to reach the NCAA doubles tournament at the end of the year,” Pramming said. “Me being a senior, it’s really my last chance here. We need a last push in the spring and then we will go to Waco.”

Most recently, they defeated Tulsa’s top doubles team 6-1 and have won six of their past seven matches. 

Now, nine years after Roberts’ desire to be the best tennis player in the world was born at the Eddie Herr tournament, he will likely have the chance, along with Pramming, to show just how far he’s come when the NCAA Doubles Championships begin May 19.

“Their potential is endless, it’s really up to them,” Hill said. “As we continue to improve their returns and their ability to be offensive in key moments, there’s no stopping them. If they get a bid for the NCAA doubles tournament, which they’re looking very good right now for it, it’s up to them how far they go.”

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