College tennis is possibly the most exciting and unique form of high-level tennis and the most visible level played as a team. It brings to the notoriously individual sport another element of passion, intensity, camaraderie and of course, rivalry.
Now is the time of year that college tennis is rounding into full swing. Teams are transitioning out of the early season acclimation, into mid-season form, sharpening their knives for the conference season around the corner. With conference play comes rivalry. And no rivalry is bigger than Michigan vs. Ohio State. The football game is a national showcase every year, but the rivalry runs much deeper than that. A permanent fire exists between the two schools that makes any game they play against one another, in just about any sport, the biggest game of the year.
In tennis in particular, the rivalry has never been hotter. With each school now a mainstay in the top 10 of the national rankings, every match between the two is loaded with season-altering stakes and personal agendas.
To understand the rivalry in tennis, we met up with players from both teams – Jake Van Emburgh, a recent graduate from Ohio State with an incredibly successful college career, now playing on the pro tour, and Nicholas Steiglehner, a highly touted freshman in the middle of his first campaign – to talk college tennis, rivalry, and their respective careers.
Be sure to catch the first conference match up between the two teams on March 19th. As of March 7th, Michigan is ranked #3 and Ohio State #4 in the ITA rankings.
Tell us about your junior career, college tennis, and your tennis life up to this point?
I’m from Naples, Florida. Now we live in Belair Beach, Florida, which is the Tampa area. My dad was the coach of the Wisconsin Badgers for 10 years, so I grew up there from 2007 to 2015, basically my sophomore year of high school.
I played baseball, hockey, tennis. Baseball and tennis were my two main sports. And then my dad was my coach, so it ended up being … hey man if we’re going to go to college, and be a pro one day, which sport is the best one for that? So I started focusing 1000 percent on tennis and the rest is history really. I moved down, junior year, to IMG academy (in Bradenton, Florida). They brought a few of us down to train there. I wanted to go pro first, but in my senior year in high school I hurt my back, and it just made more sense to go to school after that.
I took visits to Penn State, Oklahoma, Florida, almost looked at Kentucky, Tennessee, but after Oklahoma I was convinced. I was really pumped about the way things were. So I played 4 years there. And after that I was ready to play pro full-time. But remember, we had that Covid year. I hadn’t planned on using it … but Ohio State ended up calling me a month or two later. Pretty much the question was … what are the chances we can get you to come back to school? We’re trying to win NCAAs, these are our goals, these are the opportunities you’re gonna have … I loved my Oklahoma family and I’ll always be a Sooner but we never really had a chance to win on that national stage. So it made sense just to go back and have those opportunities. And also get a grad degree. It made sense. What’s another semester, right?
So I ended up going to State and we did well … maybe not as well as we would have liked to. But it was fun to get to the final 4 of NCAAs, things like that. It was a good end to my college career. I had to immediately shut down after the year because of my shoulder, which is unfortunate. I was barely able to stay on the court at the end there … but that’s about the story up till now.
How did you guys end up finishing your year at Ohio State?
We lost to Kentucky in the final four. The problem was we were all so banged up. We lost our 6 guy, he had a stress fracture in his knee. My arm was falling off … we just weren’t ourselves like we were through the season. So it was tough.
How was Ohio State different than Oklahoma? Or any other D1 School you encountered?
I mean there’s definitely some differences coaching wise, structure wise. There was a bit of a higher level of expectation at OSU for sure. At Ohio State, if there was a drop off in your level at practice, you were going to hear about it. It was that level we were held to 24/7, wherever we were, that was just different. There were no excuses, which … I agree with that mentality. We had some pretty tough days … it was a resilient experience. And you add in the shoulder injury and stuff like that, trying to get through long practices … It was hard, but definitely worth it.
"110 percent effort was the expectation every day. All the time. It was go, go, go. That’s just what we did. And I think that’s one of the things that made us so good. There was no one in that locker room who wasn’t willing to fit that standard. It’s really not a thing you can fake either. Everyone has to buy in, and everyone on our team did."
Ty (Decorated OSU Coach Ty Tucker) has established his ways at Ohio state. It’s … we’re going to work as hard as we can every day in practice. 110 percent effort was the expectation every day. All the time. It was go, go, go. That’s just what we did. And I think that’s one of the things that made us so good. There was no one in that locker room who wasn’t willing to fit that standard. It’s really not a thing you can fake either. Everyone has to buy in, and everyone on our team did.
We’ll shift into the rivalry with Michigan. What’d you know about the rivalry and relationship with Michigan coming? If anything?
I already knew that they hated each other, to the point where they don’t even say each other’s names in the locker room. I knew it was really kind of extra – which I love – when I walked in the training room for football, which we shared. So I walk in, in January, and they had lost that fall to Michigan. And replaying all over, in the training room, in the weight room … was that game, the fall before.
Then they had a thing that said “T-T-U-N” – The Team Up North – because they don’t call it Michigan, and it was how many days until we play T-T-U-N again. The whole thing is like surrounded by Michigan. They come into the locker room, or they come into the gym, and the first thing they see is the loss to Michigan and that’s where they get their fire from. That’s one of the coolest things about college sports, you can have a mature rivalry but let it be the driving force. That’s what makes it fun.
"Then they had a thing that said “T-T-U-N” – The Team Up North – because they don’t call it Michigan, and it was how many days until we play T-T-U-N again. The whole thing is like surrounded by Michigan. They come into the locker room, or they come into the gym, and the first thing they see is the loss to Michigan and that’s where they get their fire from."
How does that rivalry translate to tennis?
Honestly, we might even take it more seriously. Ty (Tucker) does not want to lose to anybody. But god forbid we lose to Michigan. He’s been there 26 years, he’s from Ohio, he’s been a Buckeye his whole life. That rivalry means more to him than maybe anyone else on campus. So for us, it was taken to the same level. So when we’re in practice and we’re training, doing whatever, our goal is to be better than them first. And both teams are top 5 – each of the last two years. So that’s extremely heated.
"Ty (Tucker) does not want to lose to anybody. But god forbid we lose to Michigan. He’s been there 26 years, he’s from Ohio, he’s been a Buckeye his whole life. That rivalry means more to him than maybe anyone else on campus. So for us, it was taken to the same level."
Can you talk about that rivalry match, or matches, you played while you were there?
Yeah, we played them 4 times. The first time we played them, we went there and lost at their place, indoors. We sat in the locker room for 3 hours after that, didn’t get home till 2 am. I was down 5-0 (at #4 singles) in the first set, came back, won 7-6, and was up a break in the second when the match ended. So that was my first hint of the Michigan rivalry. There were 1000 people in the crowd, all wearing yellow. And it’s funny … you watch a Michigan match, even against a top 10 team, and there’s nobody there. They play us … and there’s 1000 people going crazy. So that was the first time where it was like … these guys are no joke. And playing indoors in their place is definitely no joke. When you can’t hear yourself think and all you’re hearing is ‘Go Blue.’ So that was the first time we played them.
Then we played them at our place in the regular season and beat them for the regular season title. I played the same guy and beat him like 2 and 2, or 2 and 3 that day. At (number 3 singles). So that’s when we won the ring. And then we played them in the final of the big ten tournament. And we lost. That one hurt really bad. And we played them in the quarters of NCAA. We played them 4 times. And the last time we played them, we beat them outdoors at NCAA, and there was lightening, we had to move indoors. I don’t remember exactly, but it was a crazy atmosphere.
"There were 1000 people in the crowd, all wearing yellow. And it’s funny … you watch a Michigan match, even against a top 10 team, and there’s nobody there. They play us … and there’s 1000 people going crazy. So that was the first time where it was like … these guys are no joke. And playing indoors in their place is definitely no joke. When you can’t hear yourself think and all you’re hearing is ‘Go Blue.’"
Wow you played 4 times? Sounds like you got the big one though?
I guess we got the last laugh. That was all that mattered for me. But it would have been cool to win big ten regular season and the championship. Ty has a crazy streak of big ten titles (16 consecutive regular season titles through 2022). And the longest winning streak in any sport in NCAAs ever. 268 matches at home. What’s even funnier about that, is my Oklahoma Sooners were the ones that broke it.
So now that you’re done, does that rivalry with Michigan stick with you?
Even though I was only there a short time. I definitely feel … like when my boys were playing 2 nights ago in the quarters of indoors, I’m sitting there, watching Canon (Kingsley, OSU #1/2 singles) in the 3rd set, I’m swearing at the computer. We had such a tight bond, the guys on the team would come together to get through tough matches, tough days. So we were pretty close. I definitely feel connected to them and still feel like an extension for sure. One thing … Ty did unbelievable at making us close. Not giving us a choice to not be close.
"when my boys were playing 2 nights ago in the quarters of indoors, I’m sitting there, watching Canon (Kingsley, OSU #1/2 singles) in the 3rd set, I’m swearing at the computer. We had such a tight bond, the guys on the team would come together to get through tough matches, tough days."
Do you still have Ohio State buddies, or Oklahoma buddies, or who you’re close with on tour?
You know JJ Wolf was one of the guys I’ve been close with since we were young. JJ is one of my good buddies and he’s doing really well now. Sebi (Sebastian) Korda, someone we played with at IMG a lot. If I have ever have questions it’s guys like that I can reach out to, who are always there, always respond. Which is great.
Where do you see your tennis career going from here? Grand slams?
Oh yeah, I’m not doing this just to play futures. I hate this s**t right now. This isn’t fun for me. There are some guys, that it’s fun to play futures. This isn’t fun for me. It’s come here, do the work, get out of here as quick as possible. Start playing challengers and move up. I’ve only been on tour full-force for a full month after my shoulder injury. I’m only just now getting into shape, so the confidence and everything like that needs to come. It’s hard to come off a nine month stretch of not touching a ball, not playing a match, and then you got all these guys that are just sharp. And then to add insult to injury … these tournaments are on clay. So I can’t just play 1-2 tennis. I’ve taken a few L’s that have stung. But I can’t even get that mad at it. Like I was saying, you got guys that go 0 and 19 before they win matches. As long as I don’t get to 0 and 20 we’ll be good.
Tell us about your junior career and your tennis journey up to landing at U of M?
Growing up in NYC and playing tennis is definitely a challenge. The traffic alone consumes time and energy! I played at a bunch of different places but ended up pretty much full-time at the John McEnroe Academy. When I was there, I’d usually practice from 6-8pm with fitness from 5-6pm. Maybe my senior year, it was tennis 12-3pm followed by fitness for 1 hour, but for the majority of high school, those two hours, after a full day of school, were the only time I had to play. So I really had to make that time on court count. I think that really helped my development. Every time I would go on court it wasn’t being wasted, and every minute was helping me get better. I had 100 percent intensity the whole time.
And more in general – my Dad also played D1 tennis so he introduced me to the sport. I played a couple of sports when I was younger. I liked baseball a lot…I played pitcher and third base. When I was around 12, I decided to focus more on tennis and started playing tournaments. After Covid hit, that summer was when I started getting much better tennis results. That’s when my path changed. I kind of knew I would be looking at playing D1 tennis. And then everything got more serious. Traveling a lot, playing a lot of tournaments, training, fitness. That was the next level. That’s when I started talking to a bunch of college coaches too.
Through that process… I started traveling a bit more, playing outside of the country, like in Mexico and Canada. Then my senior year of high school, I played UTR prize money tournaments and got to see what that level was like. During my senior year, I committed to Michigan. When I met the coaches and the guys on the team, I really felt what they call the “Michigan Difference.” The team plays with great energy. I feel like a lot of teams just play singles, as individuals. But we really play together as a team. The guys on the team are coaching and supporting the guys on the courts next to them. And Michigan has such a good team, so coming into that environment, with a team that has probably three guys who are about to go pro, is pretty cool. So learning from them, how they’ve grown, what’s worked for them, and getting to practice with guys at a high level – every single guy on our team can play – so that was a big factor in my decision.
"I feel like a lot of teams just play singles, as individuals. But we really play together as a team. The guys on the team are coaching and supporting the guys on the courts next to them. And Michigan has such a good team, so coming into that environment, with a team that has probably three guys who are about to go pro, is pretty cool."
Also, the coaching staff is great. The head coach Steiny (Adam Steinberg) knows what it takes to win a National Championship, having won one at Pepperdine. And the assistant coach, Benjamin Becker, was a top pro who played in grand slams against tennis legends, so that was someone I knew would have great insight as well. These factors all came together to separate Michigan from other schools. The team energy, the team camaraderie, and the connection. Doing things like chants, pumping up the guys next to you, running from court to court in the middle of the match, connecting with the players on every court. It really feels like a tightly-knit team, and you can really trust your team. Your level can go through the roof with that kind of team energy.
How has college tennis differed for you from junior tennis so far?
It's been a big adjustment from junior tennis which is playing by yourself, alone. Tennis is technically an individual sport but now you’re on a complete team. You’re playing for the guy on that court next to you. When you’re practicing, and you play a great point, that guy on the court next to you is going to celebrate that point. Or when I see a guy on the court next to me do the same thing, that’s going to pump me up and make me play better.
And at the national indoors (a highly regarded early season tournament for top D1 teams) I saw that. A lot of the top teams, they’re still good teams, but a lot of them mostly focus on their individual matches. They’re great players, but they don’t have that same team component that I feel like Michigan has. We’re connected and playing for one another.
I think that’s why we have such an effect. We have a whole team of very good players with high energy that not only raises our levels as players but can be very tough to compete against.
Shifting into the rivalry … Were you aware of the rivalry with Ohio State coming from New York?
Yeah, for sure. I think it's the greatest college sports rivalry. And my mom went to Michigan so growing up we followed Michigan football. Whatever sport it is, the biggest match of the season is when you play Ohio State. There’s always that insane hype around those matches. You get the most fans coming out, the energy is a whole other level. That’s kind of the epitome of playing sports when you have a rivalry like that. Especially in tennis too.
"I think it's the greatest college sports rivalry. And my mom went to Michigan so growing up we followed Michigan football. Whatever sport it is, the biggest match of the season is when you play Ohio State."
How so? How do you think that tennis rivalry does compare to football, or other sports?
Well obviously it’s not the same scale as football in terms of the number of people following it. But it’s still a big deal for anyone who follows tennis. For the players too. You look forward to it. It’s the biggest match, you train to get ready for them, you want to beat them. And we play them a lot too. Twice in the regular season, then also the big ten tournament possibly. We play them home and away too. So that’s another element. And there definitely is a huge home court advantage. We get a ton of fans to come out. It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere here. I think it’s a big deal and one of the most exciting matches of the year. Most crazy fans. Most crazy energy. The rivalry definitely elevates the level of competitiveness.
Obviously, we play really good schools all year round … you get super pumped up, prepared for those teams. But there’s definitely something to Michigan-Ohio State, that rivalry, it means something else… you can put it in its own category.
"You look forward to it. It’s the biggest match, you train to get ready for them, you want to beat them. And we play them a lot too. Twice in the regular season, then also the big ten tournament possibly. We play them home and away too. So that’s another element. And there definitely is a huge home court advantage. We get a ton of fans to come out. It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere here. I think it’s a big deal and one of the most exciting matches of the year. Most crazy fans. Most crazy energy. The rivalry definitely elevates the level of competitiveness."
What would you say you’re most looking forward to about that match?
I would say the energy level … it’ll be different. It’s going to be a new experience. Obviously, I haven’t had experience playing them, but I’ve already heard so much about it, and seen one of the matches (during recruiting). I’m excited to see what it’s like playing them away too, at their place, because I’ve heard it’s crazy there with the fans, that it’s always loud.
Any particular memory so far that’s stood out during your freshman year?
Going from high school to college is always going to be an adjustment—in tennis and academics. But I’ve really enjoyed it and enjoyed working hard with the coaching staff. The facilities are amazing here, and the resources for student-athletes are terrific also. I’m really happy with all the guys on the team, and I’m super close to the other freshmen. We spend a lot of time together on and off the court.
What do you see as your goals with tennis?
I just want to improve as much as I can and win as many matches as I can. I plan to play a ton over this summer, maybe some prize money tournaments and pro events in the off-season so I can get my level as high as possible in preparation for the Fall and next year.
I’ll see how well I do and how much I improve by the time I’m a senior in college, and after that make a decision about playing after school. The next couple years, how I develop here, will guide that decision. But right now my goal is to do as much as I can, do all the right things, take advantage of the coaching staff here, fitness, everything that they have, and just improve as much as I can. And keep developing all the areas of my game. And just get to the level where I can play in the biggest matches at Michigan.
I’m also pretty young for college tennis, definitely the youngest guy on the team. I’m turning 19 in June, so I probably could have waited a year before playing college tennis. But I felt like I was at a high enough level where it made sense to just start right away. I’m glad I did because I can’t imagine a better place to develop as a player and person.