April 22, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Tim Kwiatkowski and Wendi Le met as students at the University of Virginia, from which each earned two degrees in the `90s.
They're now married and living in Charlotte, N.C., but their love for the University -- and Charlottesville -- has never faded. Kwiatkowski fervently follows Virginia athletics, and not only football and basketball.
"He loves them all," Thai-Son Kwiatkowski said. "Growing up, we always had UVa sports on TV."
Thai-Son, who's nearing the end of his first year at Virginia, is the older of Tim and Wendi's two sons. His parents' alma mater is now home to one of the NCAA's premier men's tennis programs, and that gave UVa coach Brian Boland a distinct advantage when he began recruiting Thai-Son, an elite prospect who spent his high school years in the USTA Player Development program in Boca Raton, Fla.
"I've been aware of Thai for years, because he was always one of the best American players in his class," Boland said. "He was heavily recruited by a number of schools, and we had to compete for him like anyone else, but certainly it assisted us that his parents both attended the University of Virginia, both in undergraduate and graduate school, and loved their experience."
Kwiatkowski looked at several other schools, he said, "and whenever I would come back here, it made me realize how special a program we had here."
Even so, he seriously considered another option. "The biggest decision for me was deciding whether or not I was ready to step out and play pro tennis," Kwiatkowski recalled last week.
"I made the right decision coming here. I definitely wasn't ready [for the pro circuit]."
Boland said: "Pro tennis was certainly something that entered his mind, and it's no question his passion and his goal, but he understood that it was important for him to use college as a pathway to the pros."
When he talks to prospects with dreams of playing professionally, such as Kwiatkowski, Boland emphasizes how college -- and college tennis -- can help them achieve their goals.
"We believe very strongly in the system we have here at Virginia," Boland said.
"I think developing into a complete person is no different than developing a complete game. I am a huge proponent of college being a pathway for young juniors with aspirations to be professional tennis players, particularly on the men's side, where the average age of a top-100 professional player is almost 27 years old, and there's so much maturing to do physically, mentally and emotionally.
"The worst thing, I think, a young man can do is skip steps, only to then fall off the ladder and be on the ground to start over. I think it's really important that you don't skip steps."
Kwiatkowski, who was born and raised in Charlotte, was considered perhaps the top American tennis recruit to enroll in college last year. He's become a fixture in the Cavaliers' lineup this spring and has a 15-1 record in singles, including an 8-0 mark in the No. 4 slot.
In doubles, he's 5-1 teaming with Mac Styslinger, 2-1 with Jordan Daigle, 1-0 with Justin Shane, and 1-1 with Mitchell Frank.
Kwiatkowski's biggest asset as a player, Boland said, is his "ability to compete. He's really intelligent, and he knows how to find his opponents' weaknesses and make good decisions on the court when he's competing.
"I like to call him a gamer, and he's someone that plays his best tennis when he needs it the most. At the same time he's got tremendous fundamentals off the ground, and he's got great hands, and for his size he hits the serve pretty big, and he's really a tremendous mover around the court. He moves as well as anybody in the game."
A 6-1, 160-pound right-hander, Kwiatkowski had to wait longer than expected to make his UVa debut. He hurt his right wrist last April, an injury that sidelined him until winter.
"But now I feel good," Kwiatkowski said. "I feel healthy again. I'm ready to help the team."
Boland said: "I certainly think that it took some time for Thai to regain his confidence. He's still in that process, but he's done an amazing job competing on a day-to-day basis. He's a tremendous competitor, and he really knows how to work his way through a match and find ways to get the job done."
The setback, Boland said, was difficult for Kwiatkowski. "But at the same time I really believe it's only going to make him stronger over time. He certainly had to learn to deal with adversity and look at life from a different perspective. I believe that's only going to allow him to grow and develop on the court as well.
"Mitchell Frank went through a similar situation [with an injury], and he'll often say that's the best thing that ever happened to him in terms of his perspective and outlook, not only in tennis, but in life, and I don't believe it will be any different for Thai over time."
Kwiatkowski wasn't sure what it would be like to be part of a college team. He's loved the experience.
"I didn't expect the dual matches to be so heated, but it's pretty awesome when you put on the uniform and you're playing for your school and your teammates," he said. "You do have a little more motivation than I think I did in juniors. When you're playing for someone other than yourself, I think that really helps you push your limits."
For fourth-ranked Virginia, the defending NCAA champion, postseason play begins this weekend. The `Hoos (20-2) are seeded No. 1 in the ACC tournament and will meet No. 8 seed Florida State (17-10) or No. 9 seed Miami (14-10) in a quarterfinal Friday at 9 a.m. in Cary, N.C.
UVa is seeking its eighth straight ACC tourney title and 10th in 11 seasons. The Cavaliers have won an ACC-record 118 consecutive matches against conference opponents, but Boland says his players will take nothing for granted in Cary.
"One of the things that I'm most proud of with this program is that when they put the orange and blue on, every day, whether in practice or a match, they do it with pride and a sense of urgency all the time," Boland said.
"Our consistency is the one thing I'm most proud of in terms of our on-court success. For years these young men, both current and former players, have been wearing the orange and blue with such pride, and they show up to play with a tremendous amount of focus and discipline on a day-to-day basis, or we couldn't have the success that we've had in terms of our consistency over the last decade."
On a recent afternoon, former UVa stars Somdev Devarrman and Michael Shabaz practiced together on a nearby court as Kwiatkowski did an interview. Kwiatkowski said he's enjoyed getting to know Devarrman, Shabaz and other tennis alumni.
"This program isn't just about winning," Kwiatkowski said. "Even though we have a history of all that stuff, we really do make incredible networks here, incredible friendships and relationships, between the coaches, the current team, the former team, the fans.
"A lot of guys when they graduate college, they don't give back to their university. They don't spend time there. They don't come back. But here you notice that the tennis alumni, they're always back in town. They're always coming back to hit with us. They're following how we're doing. It's really special, I think, to have that kind of culture."
Kwiatkowski's mother, who has a bachelor's degree (from the McIntire School of Commerce) and a master's in management information systems from UVa, is chief operating officer of Reel-Scout, a film location management system.
His father, who has a bachelor's in psychology and a medical degree from the University, is an emergency-room physician. He's also a fixture at his son's matches, no matter the location.
"He loves it," Boland said of the elder Kwiatkowski. "He's extremely passionate."
Thai-Son said he was probably 1 or 2 when he first visited UVa, and many more trips to Charlottesville followed with his parents.
"They love this place," Kwiatkowski said, and they've passed that on to him.
"I feel like I've taken advantage of a lot of opportunities here," Kwiatkowski said, "and I've been able to get amazing training and an unbelievable education, so it's been invaluable."