Philip Henning

Georgia men's tennis player Philip Henning during a tennis match against Florida State at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga., on January 24, 2021. (Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics)

Georgia men’s tennis has found its stride in the last few weeks. 

After starting 1-4 in conference play, the Bulldogs have entered a midseason tear, winning four straight in the SEC and the last five of six overall. 

While play on the court decides the matches, players’ mental aptitude and strength have been crucial in this run. Head coach Manuel Diaz believes keeping a level head is vital to success.

“You want to make sure that at the end of the day you didn’t get too high, you didn’t get too low,” Diaz said. “You didn’t lose your composure, you stayed in the present and you saw things clearly. If you do that, you are able to see the landscape, and you’re able to see what you need to do in order to give yourself the best chance of succeeding.”

On March 26, Georgia and Kentucky were tied 3-3 with only Billy Rowe’s match remaining. With hundreds in attendance hoping to see the Bulldogs get a victory under the lights of their home courts, Rowe was aware the outcome would be decided by him and had to keep himself cool under the pressure.

“I think everyone gets nervous, and if people say they don’t, they’re definitely lying,” Rowe said with a laugh. “It’s just what you have to deal with playing sports. I kind of have my little rituals where I’ll play the point, I’ll go back to the towel, wipe my face off, lower my heart rate a little bit and get myself pretty calm.”

Rowe is not the only player to demonstrate late contest heroics under the weight of a deciding match.

Philip Henning has found himself in that position against Auburn, UCF and Wake Forest this season and agrees on the importance of routine.

“I feel like my routine is really important,” Henning said. “After every point, I go back to my towel. When I was younger I used to always put the towel on the right side of the court, but that superstition kind of faded away. Now I just try to go back to my towel every point, reset my mind and focus on the next point.”

Routine — while unique to every player — is important in tennis. A simple towel wipe and a few seconds of breathing for Rowe and Henning allow them to keep their composure in close matches. 

Both of the standout Bulldogs said that these small tasks and rituals allow them to achieve an ultimate goal: focus on the task at hand. 

“I try to focus on just the point I’m playing next, stay as much in the moment as I possibly can and try to zone in,” Henning said. “Keep my mind on my match.”

Rowe and Henning’s mental strength has been crucial to the recent stretch of play for Georgia. The increase in form from the Bulldogs is coming at the right time, as they only have three remaining matches before the SEC tournament and have climbed to No. 11 in the country. 

However, Diaz is not satisfied yet and thinks his team has not shown their true capability.

“I still feel like we haven’t played our best tennis yet,” Diaz said. “We can’t take anybody for granted. We’ve had some close losses, and we’ve had some good matches here lately that I think have given us some momentum. But the work is not done yet.”

Next up for Georgia is Arkansas who defeated No. 6 Texas A&M on March 14. The Bulldogs face the Razorbacks this Friday in Fayetteville.