Jan. 17, 2012
This is the eighth in a 10-part series looking at each member of the Vols' 2012 roster leading up to the start of the season Jan. 20 with a home double header against Memphis and Eastern Kentucky beginning at 1 p.m. All 10 feature stories will be part of the 2012 media guide.
BY AMANDA PRUITT
Since arriving on Tennessee's campus in August, Mikelis Libietis has quickly grown accustomed to two questions, one usually asked right after the other:
1. Where are you from? (answer: Latvia)
2. Where is that? (answer: eastern Europe, to the north between Estonia and Lithuania)
While Libietis has grown accustomed to explaining the far-away geography of his homeland -- nearly 5,000 miles removed from Knoxville -- his story is a familiar one and easy for anyone to understand immediately. It's a tale that rings true for athletes everywhere.
For Libietis, tennis is a family sport. Many of his teammates can say the same.
He began playing the game when his older brother Matiss, then seven, started taking lessons from their father.
Valdis Libietis, a tennis coach, saw right away his sons had a natural gift for the sport. The young Mikelis and his racket were pretty much inseparable after the first trip to the courts; he took the racket with him everywhere he went.
"I started playing when I was four, so the racket was probably bigger than me," Libietis said.
Mikelis and Matiss kept playing tennis growing up, long after most of their other friends at the club had moved on to other sports. Mikelis played -- and won -- his first tournament at the age of seven and was hooked from there. He eventually lost count of prizes in his trophy case once he reached 100.
Sure, he competed in other sports. There was soccer and basketball and floorball. He even spent time as the fourth-ranked junior table tennis player in all of Latvia. But in the end, the family game of tennis won over.
The old-fashioned sibling rivalry, friendly for the most part, always came into play when Mikelis and Matiss faced each other on opposite ends the court. Mikelis gained the upper hand in the brother vs. brother matchup at age 16, and the Vol claims he has not lost a match Matiss in two years, though he admits he's faced set point a time or two.
That rivalry was put on pause when Matiss packed his bags for Hawaii Pacific University to play college tennis in the United States.
"Me and my brother are really close," Libietis said. "We'll do everything for each other. When you're getting older, it means a lot more for you. Last year, he was nine months in Hawaii. He didn't come home for break. You miss him a lot."
On trips back home to Latvia, Matiss told stories about the excitement and intensity of college dual matches at the NCAA Division II level. Eventually, the college path seemed the best road to take for Mikelis as well. While he had reached an ATP doubles ranking of No. 624, he lacked the finances to fund a professional career and needed to improve his game.
Matiss still had a major role to play in his younger brother's departure for Rocky Top. While away in Hawaii, Matiss did Mikelis a favor when he put in a good word for him to Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham while the Vols were on the islands and competing in the 2011 Rainbow Warrior Challenge.
Not long after that, Mikelis Libietis knew where he would be going for college tennis. The Vols' recent track record of team and individual titles was hard to ignore.
"It was my only choice probably," Libietis said, "especially when I saw the great team here, how they are progressing every year."
Libietis' first trip to Tennessee was when he flew into Knoxville in time for freshman orientation. New city. New culture. Different language. He took all those changes in stride. Playing tennis growing up, he was no stranger to traveling anywhere -- and everywhere -- around the globe.
There were adjustments Libietis had to make on the tennis court as well once he left home. The training and fitness schedule was much more demanding, and for the first time in his life, he had coaches who didn't answer to "Dad."
Libietis suspected the team aspect of college tennis would take getting used to, but he immediately fit into a Vols squad that featured three other freshmen, plus a fourth with Trym Nagelstad arriving in January.
"When I came here, I thought it wasn't going to be so easy with a new team," Libietis said. "But the first day I came here, it was so easy. I felt like I already knew these guys for years. Yeah, I just can't wait for the season."
The young Vol's first fall season was a memorable one. While he spent nearly a month on the sidelines with injury, he still managed an 8-1 singles record, plus a 9-2 mark in doubles. His first career tournament, the Tennessee Fall Invitational, resulted in winning the singles and doubles titles in the top flight.
He and fellow freshman Hunter Reese also captured the doubles title USTA/ITA Ohio Valley Regional Championship on their home courts.
Home might be far away, but Libietis is still very much remembered there, even when he isn't serving on the clay courts of Europe. He is one of the promising young tennis talents in Latvia, having already represented his country in the Davis Cup last year. His exploits at Tennessee his first semester alone made headlines on occasion, and he even got in a few trans-Atlantic interviews.
For now, the fall is in the past for Libietis as he and the Vols concentrate on getting ready for the spring season.
"It was pretty exciting," Libietis said. "And at the end of the semester, I really progressed my game and fitness. I started to run a lot better, and practices were better for me, probably because I could stay longer on the court. I'm really happy for that. The ending was a lot better."