Jan. 25, 2010
By John Painter
Matteo Fago was more than satisfied with his life growing up in central Italy.
Play tennis. Have pretty much the rest of the day free.
But fate stepped in and altered Fago's life, and now the junior finds himself an integral part of what could be a very special season for the Tennessee men's tennis team.
"In Italy, going to college is not one of the most common things, so it was a surprise for me to come here," Fago said of his journey to the United States. "I wasn't expecting it."
Fago's fork in the road came when he met current Vols teammate and future doubles partner Boris Conkic, who hails from Serbia just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.
"I got to know Boris from playing tournaments together," Fago said. "He decided to come to the U.S. and when he told me, that's when I started thinking about it. And that's when I found out that it would be a good option for me. I like school and, obviously, I love tennis, so it was a good fit for me."
Fago has been a success at UT from Day 1.
"He was excited about getting this opportunity to come to Tennessee and he put all his effort into it," Vols head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "He's very singularly focused and it's just impressive to see him that way."
Upon arriving in time for the 2008 spring semester, Fago proceeded to go undefeated in SEC play and earn a spot on the Freshman All-SEC squad. His 11-0 mark was the Vols' first perfect season in conference action since 1990 and helped UT reach the NCAA's Round of 16.
Fago finished that year 19-7 overall in singles and partnered mostly with Conkic and Jeremy Tweedt to go 17-6 in doubles.
Last season, Fago boosted his credentials to claim All-SEC first team honors. He again won 19 singles matches - 16 consecutive over one stretch - against 12 losses and finished 7-2 versus SEC competition. He teamed with Conkic to compile a 25-8 doubles mark and was 25-10 overall in doubles.
Tennessee again advanced to the NCAA's Round of 16.
This year, Fago expects the Vols to take that next step toward a possible national championship.
"Since Rhyne (Williams) and Tennys (Sandgren) have come, I feel really excited for this team and think we have the capability for doing great things. We are taking care of the little things to make that happen and definitely are among the 7-8 teams that have a great chance and have great talent.
"It won't be easy, but I'm sure we have a chance of doing it."
Does Fago think he can continue his impressive play against SEC opposition?
"I don't really have a secret," said Fago, who enters this spring 18-2 in SEC dual singles matches and is the current career leader in conference wins. "I just try to listen to my coaches as much as possible because they always have great tactics for us."
Fago is quite a ways from his beautiful Italian hometown of Ceprano, located about 60 miles southeast of Rome, but he enjoys the Tennessee experience.
"The first thing is how professional the program is - how scheduled everything is and how set the times are. And one other thing I noticed when I first came here is how many things we have to do every day. Back home, I was used to just playing tennis and then had the rest of the day free. Here, I had to find time for studying and playing tennis.
"In the first two months, I was so tired and it was a huge change for me. But I got used to it and now I'm much better as a person."
Keeping Fago and the Vols on their toes is what Winterbotham and his staff seem to excel at.
"They are extremely professional and just want us to do the best we can," Fago said. "Sometimes, like parents, they have to be hard on us, but the coaches really care about us and give everything they can to make us better."
Fago's days in Knoxville are far from empty but certainly no less idyllic than if he were home. And his grade-point averages have been strong despite the obvious disadvantages Fago faced when first enrolling at UT.
"When I decided to come here, my English wasn't good enough," he said. "So I had to study a lot to pass the test I had to take before I came to UT. It was a really hard test for me, but I was really sure about coming here. I just came over and developed my English and I was able to make it.
"I was 18 and just out of high school. At first, I just wanted to play tennis. And in Italy, not many people do it. I think just a few Italians are in college tennis."
Winterbotham agrees that Italy is not a country producing a lot of U.S. collegiate tennis players, but recognizes that this talented junior is the exception.
"The ones that do come normally do very well, and Matteo fits that description. When he decides on something, he goes after it. When he gets into SEC competition, he wants to win as much as anybody. He understands the importance of that level of competition."
The Vols coach also appreciates Fago's nuanced contributions, from his excellent cooking to his abilities with the trumpet and more.
"Matteo is a great guy," Winterbotham said. "His teammates really respect him and he is a very good influence on our program. And he's the peacemaker; he loves to make everyone happy."
Happily satisfied with a collegiate life in America. Tennis and all.