April 12, 2012
BY MATT MAGILL
Freshman Mikelis Libietis has been in very rare territory indeed in his first year in orange and white.
Playing at No. 1 singles and doubles every match this season, Libietis is just the seventh Vol to play atop the singles lineup as freshman. It's rare company indeed, a who's who of Tennessee tennis. Four of those freshmen on court 1 -- Andy Kohlberg (1978), Mike DePalmer Jr. (1981), Chris Woodruff (1992) and most recently John-Patrick Smith (2008) -- all eventually reached the No. 1 national ranking in singles during their careers.
Throw in perpetual top-10 player Peter Handoyo from the early 2000s and Doug Flach from the 1990 NCAA final team, and all told, not bad company.
Libietis has collected an 18-12 record in singles and a 24-8 record in doubles heading into the season finale Saturday against foruth-ranked Georgia at 1 p.m. at Barksdale Stadium. It's a critical match for the 15th-ranked Vols as they try to secure one of the 16 NCAA regional host sites.
The native of Priekuli, Latvia, talks about his freshman year, the nickname "Labeats" and the struggles of P.A. announcers everywhere to say his name correctly in this week's tennis Q&A.
Q: I know you've hit a rough patch, but you have to be pleased with your freshman season. Did you expect this success?
A: No. I never thought I was going to play No. 1 on the team. I think it's been a good season for me. I've improved a lot. It's been great.
Q: After reaching No. 1, what keeps you motivated every day in practice?
A: My motivation is to get better and try to go pro after I'm done. Every day I need to go out there and work. I have a lot to improve like my forehand.
Q: What kind of challenges did you face coming in as a freshman?
A: My life changed. I'm from such a small country. Everything was different here. It was a big life change for me.
Q: How did you adjust to college life?
A: I think I did pretty well. I like that I knew what I needed to do that day. At this time I have practice, then I have school, then I need to study. It's been fine, but sometimes I have problems with classes with the language barrier.
Q: One of your best attributes on the court is your big serve. Where did you learn that?
A: My brother also had a big serve. Maybe that runs in the family. Maybe it's in my height. I loved to serve when I was younger. I would rather serve than anything else.
Q: You and Hunter Reese have teamed up for a great season. Where do you see yourselves going in the individual tournament?
A: We feel pretty confident. We're struggling a little now, but I think we're going to find a way to win matches again. We feel great.
Q: With your struggles, how do you get back on track? What's the problem and then how do you fix it?
A: We just need to work harder. We had a winning streak of nine games and just got into a routine. Now people will play a few good games and we're not fighting as hard. That's a little of the problem. We talked with the coaches. We just need to work hard again.
Q: Does losing motivate you?
Q: You have Georgia this weekend and then you go right into the SEC tournament. What are your goals for the rest of the season?
A: I think in the SEC tournament, any team can win. Coach told us yesterday that we can beat any team and they're the same level as us. It's going to be interesting, especially for my first year. Every team is so even.
Q: What are you looking forward to most about the team tournament experience?
A: The emotions. Stuff will go on on the court. I heard Georgia is going to be loud. I've never experienced that.
Q: Do you get nervous before a match?
A: Not really.
Q: Do you think you will for a tournament?
A: I don't know. I've played so many matches in my life. I'm just going out there and trying not to think about who's playing against me and just playing my match.
Q: One of the keys to tournament play is just getting hot at the right time. You've hit a rough patch, but if you can get it going before the tournament, that momentum can carry you. How do you peak at the right time and get to that level?
A: Me and coach talked about that for the last two matches. I started to play a lot better when the match was over. I need to relax. Everyone on the team needs to be loud, especially now. We need to motivate each other on the court. We need to be loud. We're so many freshmen that we need to give motivation to them.
Q: You were on the Latvian Davis Cup team. What did you take away from that experience?
A: I was just proud to be on a Davis Cup team. That's a big deal in Latvia. We don't have so many players, but there's always been four top players. Now the young guys are coming up. It was great to be on the team just to see how the Davis Cup goes on.
Q: Are you a St. Louis Cardinals fan?
A: Not really.
Q: Then why do you have the hat?
A: I walked into the shop and wanted a baseball hat. That was the best logo in the white hats.
Q: You got your twitter handle on the side of it. What was that about?
A: I got my initials. Everyone in my city has the same initials. It's mL_9. 9 is for the day I was born.
Q: I'll make sure to link out to your page (@mL_9) to get you a few more followers. Your brother Matiss is always on the blog and watching the matches even though it's late in Latvia. Would you do the same for him?
A: Yeah. I remember he was at Hawaii Pacific University and he was playing NCAAs last year. I stayed up and watched the live score. It was around 1 a.m.
Q: You used to stay up and watch the Lakers too, right?
A: Yeah, especially at home. The Golden State Warriors, too. They had a Latvian guy. Me and my brother stayed up at 7 a.m. to watch NBA at home.
Q: Are the Lakers your favorite team?
Q: Do you watch them more now in America?
A: Yeah. Because of the time and because it's on TV, it's easier.
Q: Do you think Kobe has enough to carry them deep into the playoffs again this year?
A: I'm not sure. I hope so. Oklahoma City is amazing this year, so it's going to be tough. He can do it. He's one of the best players.
Q: You have several nicknames. Which one is your favorite?
A: Sam calls me Goofy. When I came here, I was lazy to move on the court so I took big, goofy steps to play the ball. I like LaBeats. It's funny that Woody didn't know how to pronounce my surname and so every called me that. It's L-A-and then Beats. Like Dr. Dre Beats. It's funny sometimes because they say "LaBeats has Beats."
Q: How often does your name get mispronounced in America?
A: A lot. If I meet new people, they might all pronounce it differently. Eight of of ten times probably. They don't know how to say it. How I can say it, you're never going to say it. Americans can't say it. The k is just different.
Q: How often do the announcers on the road get your name wrong?
A: Last time they did a good job. The refs struggle. Sometimes you laugh when they don't know how to pronounce it.