Mac Styslinger was 14 years old and really struggling with his two-handed backhand when he made one of the boldest decisions of his tennis career.
The Birmingham, Ala., native, with the help of longtime coach Jack Standifer, switched to a one-hander.
The move, so late in his development, was certainly a gamble — but it’s one that has paid obvious dividends.
Styslinger played in all four junior grand slams — including a run to the Australian Open Round of 16 — and was the No. 2 college recruit in the country last year, according to tennisrecruiting.net.
This season, the Virginia freshman has been everything as advertised.
Styslinger is ranked No. 23 in the country in singles and No. 1 in the country in doubles with partner Jarmere Jenkins.
Playing mainly out of the No. 4 and 5 spots in the Cavaliers' deep singles lineup, Styslinger has posted a 14-3 record.
“I believe he could have gone into a lot of programs and played No. 1 or 2 as a first-year right away,” said Virginia coach Brian Boland, whose team hits the road for matches with Florida State and Miami this weekend. “He’s already proven he can compete with anybody in the country.”
One of the highlights of Styslinger’s season came last month against Duke when Virginia’s streak of 94 straight ACC wins was in jeopardy. The Cavaliers trailed the Blue Devils, 3-2, before Styslinger pulled out a second-set tiebreaker against Chris Mengel.
“That was a little nerve-racking,” said Styslinger, smiling. “I’m lucky I didn’t realize we were down 3-2. It probably would have been even more nerve-racking.”
Moments after Styslinger won, senior Julen Uriguen closed Duke out as an excited throng of Virginia players rushed the court to celebrate.
“That was definitely the coolest moment so far,” Styslinger said.
It was two summers ago that Boland knew he really wanted Styslinger to come to Virginia. Boland watched the 6-foot-4 right-hander play in the semifinals of the junior national championship in Kalamazoo, Mich., against current UVa sophomore Mitchell Frank.
“Although Mitchell won convincingly, you could see Mac had a ton of ability,” Boland said.
Styslinger’s final college choices came down to USC, Georgia and UVa.
“It was pretty cool to be in that situation,” said the IMG Academy product, when asked about being recruited by the NCAA champion Trojans, “but I just loved UVa.
“There’s no place like Charlottesville and no coach like Coach Boland and [assistant coach] Andres Pedroso and everybody.”
Styslinger, who grew up a big Alabama football fan — he says he and his family are now all orange and blue — has been pleased with his transition to the college game.
“In the fall, it was pretty easy because it was all individual stuff,” he said. “But in the team competition, it’s been a little tougher just focusing on my own match just because every match means so much to the team and you’re pulling for every guy.
“But I feel like I’m getting better at just focusing on my own court.”
Boland calls Styslinger, whose father, Mark, was a two-time tennis All-American at SMU, “mature beyond his years.”
“He reminds me of Houston Barrick in that way,” said Boland, referring to the former Virginia captain. “He’s one of those guys who shows up with an even temperament and is always ready to compete, whether it was practice or a match.”
Styslinger’s success in doubles has been a huge bonus for Virginia — he and Jenkins are 10-2. Styslinger has seamlessly filled the spot occupied by former NCAA doubles champion Drew Courtney.
“He’s got such a consistent return,” Pedroso said, “and he serves so well that Jarmere just needs to be really active at net — which is what he does great — and they make a great team.”
With his flowing one-handed backhand, Styslinger has the type of game that is reminiscent of Roger Federer, who just happens to be one of Styslinger’s favorite pro players.
But Styslinger said the transition from a two-hander didn’t happen overnight.
“I sliced a lot at the beginning,” he explained. “It was definitely a long process. I see a lot of improvement every day. It’s still improving I feel like, but I really like it. It’s a solid shot for me.”
Pedroso says Styslinger is being humble.
“He’s got an unbelievable backhand,” Pedroso said. “It kind of reminds me of [Richard] Gasquet and [Nicolas] Almagro and the best one-handers out there on tour.”
Boland believes Styslinger — whose younger sister is set to attend UVa in the fall — projects as a bonafide No. 1 player in the lineup and has a good chance to do damage on the pro tour someday.
“Mac has been a great asset to our program and has made a tremendous impact already,” Boland said. “He’s an incredibly intelligent, hardworking and coachable young man who I believe has so much potential.”
The Mac file
Favorite movies: Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy
Favorite pro players: Roger Federer and Tommy Haas
If you could meet one celebrity: Barack Obama
One thing people don’t know: “I love fishing.”