June 12, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- He came to the University of Virginia in the summer of 2013, a highly regarded recruit who'd spent his high school years in the U.S. Tennis Association Player Development program in Boca Raton, Florida.
On the court, Thai-Son Kwiatkowski was brash, quick-tempered and emotional. Much has changed for him since then, and not only when he has a racket in his hand.
"I don't think the fourth-year Thai would be friends with first-year Thai," Kwiatkowski said last week. "I'm very proud and grateful for the person I am today, because so many people have impacted my life, from coaches to professors to my team to just friends at the University. I was able to grow up in this place. I'm leaving it, but I'll always be back."
Kwiatkowski capped a remarkable college career last month with an NCAA singles championship, defeating North Carolina freshman William Blumberg in straight sets in Athens, Georgia. That marked the fourth such title for the UVA men's program. Somdev Devvarman won in 2007 and '08 and Ryan Shane in '15.
"I heard from Somdev and Ryan right after the match," Kwiatkowski said. "It's so cool to have that kind of legacy [at UVA]."
A new challenge awaits Kwiatkowski, who graduated last month with a degree from the McIntire School of Commerce, where his concentration was information technology.
At the end of this week, he's moving from Charlottesville to Orlando, Florida, home of the USTA's national campus, and will launch his professional career. He'll be reunited in Orlando with Brian Boland, whose legendary run as the head men's coach at UVA ended last month with the program's third straight NCAA championship.
"Leaving on that high note is the best feeling," said Kwiatkowski, whose parents, Wendi Le and Tim Kwiatkowski, each have two degrees from UVA.
Boland is the new head of men's tennis for USTA Player Development. He won four NCAA titles, 12 ACC championships, six ITA crowns and 453 matches in 16 seasons at Virginia.
"It's super sad to leave Charlottesville at any time," Kwiatkowski said, "but [it was special] to leave and send Coach Boland not only out with a win, but doing it the right way. It felt like the culture that we had and the way we conducted ourselves throughout the entire week in Athens really made the difference. I'm very sad to leave this place, but I'm excited for what's next."
As the NCAA singles champion, Kwiatkowski earned an automatic bid into the main draw of the U.S. Open late this summer. He plans to play in about a half-dozen tournaments before then, starting with an event this month in Rochester, New York.
"I'm really excited to make this transition," said Kwiatkowski, who was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. "This is a dream come true to even have this opportunity. I feel like the way this season ended was the perfect springboard for any type of professional career."
Coming out of high school, Kwiatkowski seriously considered turning pro before deciding to enroll at UVA, where he excelled in the classroom as well as in tennis. He was twice honored as the ACC men's scholar-athlete of the year from the University. On the court, a coaching staff that included at various times Boland, Dustin Taylor, Andres Pedroso, Scott Brown and Carlos Benatzky helped Kwiatkowski improve as a player and mature as a person.
"It's really the best decision I could have made in my entire life," Kwiatkowski said of enrolling at UVA.
"Looking back now, I had so much to learn -- in tennis, yes, but just in life and as a human being. So many moments I made the wrong decision and [the coaches] were there to stick by me and teach me the right ways. I have such a better perspective now on what tennis is and the fact that it's just a game, but we can change so many lives by impacting people not only how we play the game, but how we treat people around the game."
In his final year at UVA, Kwiatkowski posted a 33-7 record in singles. In doubles, he and classmate Alexander Ritschard were 25-1 together. Their last victory came in the NCAA team final, in which they defeated North Carolina's Jack Murray and Simon Soendergaard in a tiebreaker to clinch the doubles point for the Wahoos.
Then came singles, in which Blumberg beat Kwiatkowski 6-3, 6-2 at No. 2. That marked the second time in less than a month that Blumberg had defeated Kwiatkowski in straight sets, which added another storyline to their rematch in the NCAA singles final at the University of Georgia's Dan Magill Tennis Complex.
"He didn't just beat me, either," Kwiatkowski recalled. "It was pretty comprehensive in that team final. I put my heart and soul into that match, because it was the team final, and I just couldn't find a way through. So I knew going into the [NCAA singles final] I had my work cut out for me."
The NCAA team final had to be played indoors because of inclement weather in Athens. The singles final was played outdoors, and that worked in his favor, Kwiatkowski said. So did the new strategy Virginia's coaches devised for his match with Blumberg.
"I think maybe being a senior was a little bit helpful as well," Kwiatkowski said.
The NCAA singles tournament started less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the team final, and that proved especially challenging for Kwiatkowski.
"Honestly, the first two days, I was still coming down from the high of winning the team championship," he said. "That first round is pretty difficult. You're tired and you're emotionally drained. Second round, I felt a little bit better. I felt a little bit better as every match went on, to be honest."
He was in Athens for more than two weeks -- "It felt like a month," Kwiatkowski said, smiling -- and he missed graduation at UVA. "But my girlfriend, being the amazing girlfriend she is, saved her cap and gown for me, and we put it on and we took some pictures and we walked up and down the Lawn," he said.
As he prepares for the next chapter in his life, Kwiatkowski marvels at how he's matured at UVA.
"I have no regrets with how I spent my four years here," Kwiatkowski said. "I feel like I got the most I could out of the experience. I studied hard, I had some incredible relationships with a lot of people here at the University. Have a lot of great friends. Had a lot of great moments on the court."
His tennis career won't last forever, Kwiatkowski knows. "It could be two years, it could be 10 years," he said. "God willing, it'll be that long. But I know when it's over I'll have a good foundation to get into the business world.
"I love tennis, and I see myself playing tennis for the rest of my life, whether that's in a more structured role, in terms of marketing the game with USTA, or working in New York and being a fan of the U.S. Open once a year. I'll always be around the game, but I definitely have a great passion for business, and I know that's eventually where my life will take me."
When Kwiatkowski was a freshman, Pedroso was the Cavaliers' associate head coach. Pedroso, who spent the next three years coaching privately in Florida, recently was named head men's coach and director of tennis at UVA.
"Andres has incredible strengths," Kwiatkowski said, "so he's going to use his strengths and take the blueprint and the base that Coach Boland has built here and continue his success. I expect them to continue the culture that we have here and the impact that they're making in the community. I'll be so proud to come back as an alum and watch them compete."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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