An Unbreakable Bond in Doubles or Singles

Friday, November 18, 2016

Matic Spec flew halfway across the world from Maribor, Slovenia, preparing for the next chapter of his life as a men's tennis student-athlete at the university of Minnesota. 

He settled into his 17th Avenue dorm room and waited the arrival of his future roommate and teammate, Felix Corwin, '18 BSB, who strolled onto campus four days later from a small Wisconsin town, Elm Grove.

They were both full of nerves that are familiar to anybody who remembers moving away to college. Corwin's family took Spec out to eat that first night, and the two played some tennis and tried to get to know each other. Spec remembers texting Corwin in the days leading up to the meeting and thinking he seemed quite introverted.

"We did not know what to expect from each other," Spec says. "We were sitting in the room later that night and Felix was like, 'Okay, let's try to meet some people.' He opened the door and he had these giant speakers that he started blasting music from. I was like, 'Okay, I think we will get along well.'"

That moment was the first of many the two shared. As they head into their junior season, it is tough to find times they have been apart during the last two years.

"We were together 24/7 it seemed like for the first half of our college career. We hardly ever argue; we get along really well. He is just easy to be around," Corwin says. "We both love loud music, love to eat, and that is about all it took."

Simple as that. Loud music and food.

Not even adding girlfriends could split the duo up. It actually did the opposite. Their girlfriends are best friends, too.

"They were friends before we started dating them. Matic and Kaitlyn were dating for a few months, and I met my girlfriend Brittany through Kaitlyn. She introduced us," Corwin says.

Despite coming from dramatically different cultures, the two share similar views on the world and were eager to learn more about the other's background. There is one thing that especially stands out in Corwin's mind, though. "The biggest thing he has picked up from our culture is American football. He really latched onto that," Corwin says.

According to Jeremy Lynn, a teammate and roommate this past year, Spec may have been more into it than anybody else. "He knows more about the NFL than I do," Lynn says. "Somehow he manages to stay up-to-date on sports updates, get grades, and win accolades in tennis."

Starting strong

It's a good thing the duo hit it off right away. As freshmen, they joined a team with six upperclassmen.

"They were the only two in their grade, so they spent a lot of time together that first Welcome Week," head coach Geoff Young says. "They had a lot of the same classes, so it's not surprising they became good friends. They are very similar style people with the way they go about their business."

The way they go about their business is laid back, yet determined. The pair wasted no time jumping into collegiate competition. Both contributed significantly to the team's success as freshmen in 2015, helping the Maroon and Gold win its first Big Ten championship in 20 years.

Spec went 31-5 in singles playing in the No. 2 through No. 5 singles spots. He went undefeated in Big Ten action and was named an alternate for the NCAA singles tournament after finishing the season on a 14-match win streak. He only lost two matches in dual match play his entire freshman season.

Corwin completed the season with a 28-6 singles record playing in the No. 3-5 spots. He also posted a 25-7 doubles mark, among the most single-season double wins in program history. He recorded the match-clinching point against Northwester in three sets to secure the team's Big Ten Championship.

"While they are from different parts of the world, I think they had similar upbringings," Lynn says. "They share the same values. They are both like-minded, hard-working, and successful."

"They just both like to work. Even when we are on the road, they are constantly online looking for results and searching for whom they will play," associate head coach Urban Ljubic says. "Their mind is 100 hundred percent on getting better at tennis. They both are also doing very well in school. It is a win-win for us as coaches to have guys like that be part of the team."

New year, new look

As freshmen, the duo could lean on senior leadership, but the team had a completely different look going into its sophomore season. After trading four graduating seniors for four incoming freshmen, Spec moved to the No. 1 singles spot and Corwin started at No. 2.

The Gophers produced positive moments despite struggles. Spec earned All-Big Ten honors playing all but one match at No. 1 in the spring season. Meanwhile, Corwin missed time with a wrist injury that limited him even when he was able to play. Playing together, the friends found success as a doubles tandem, something with which they did not have much experience with as freshmen. 

"We gave them a shot this year because we had a very new team. Those were the only two that really had any doubles experience before the season started," Ljubic says. "We put them together to see what would happen, and right away they had some success. They deserve to be playing No. 1 and to be ranked as high as they are."

In the fall tournament season, the two went 6-2 together and won the ITA Central Region Championship, a victory which earned them a trip to the National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships.

"I am surprised they did so well in doubles because, in the past when I put good friends together in doubles, it didn't always take," Young says. "When you are part of a doubles team, you need to be able to be really real with each other and be very honest. Sometimes that comes across as tough love."

They were ranked as high as No. 10 in the country but were limited together in the spring due to Corwin's injury. They teamed up again toward the end of the year and closed the season on a five-match win streak. They were selected as an NCAA Tournament alternate.

"Their mind is 100 hundred percent on getting better at tennis. They both are also doing very well in school. It is a win-win for us as coaches to have guys like that be part of the team." —Associate Head Coach Urban Ljubic

"We are both great competitors, and we both understand each other really well. We are just patient with each other," Corwin says. 

"I don't tell him what to do, and he doesn't try to tell me what to do," Spec says. "A lot of people try to show their teammate what to do. When we started playing together, we said, 'Yeah, let's not do that. Let's just see what happens.' That worked out."

How do their games complement each other?

"They serve and return well, which is the biggest thing for doubles," Young says. 

"We have big serves, hit the ball big, and return big," Spec says.

"We play most of our matches indoors so we go big returns and big serves," Corwin says.

"They complement each other with good serves and good returns, which is the most important part of doubles," Lynn says.

"It is a lot easier to play when you have a good serve and a decent return in doubles. Those are the most important shots in doubles, and both of those guys have them," Ljubic says.

Hitting the road

When the season ended, Spec and Corwin immediately went back to work to prepare themselves for the upcoming season. They will be two of only three upperclassmen on the roster, and they plan to lead by example to help get the team back to where it was two years ago.

"I think they are two guys that have a very clear vision of what they want to do here in college. That is making the most of their opportunity—in school, as people, and on the tennis team," Young says.

They went right to work on that vision by hopping in a car and road-tripping across the country to compete in four tournaments over the entire month of June. They stayed in hotels or host houses with no real break from tennis or driving. It was the ultimate friendship test.

"I don't know if I could stay with many other people while on a trip like that," Corwin says. "We were sleeping in the same bedroom for 30 straight days, and in between the tournaments, we were driving 10 hours. We did not have much space between us." 

Oh, and Corwin drove the entire trip.

"I do not have a license, so he was the driver for everything. I was just trying to be a good co-driver and not fall asleep," Spec says.

"I was just grinding it out. He was a great companion to have," Corwin says. "He only dozed off, like, once. I told him he could nap all he wanted and I really would not have cared, but he stayed awake." 

After leaving the Corwin family's house in Elm Grove to start their summer odyssey, they headed all the way to Charlottesville, Va., for their first tournament. They went from Charlottesville to Winston-Salem, N.C., where they spent a week competing. From there they traveled all the way back to Tulsa, Okla., and finally finished out their trip in Wichita, Kan.

Both Corwin and Spec said they had good moments and bad moments on the tennis court during the trip. Neither was completely satisfied. 

"They were not as successful as they would have liked to have been. They spent countless hours right next to each other and were not winning. They stayed close regardless of the results," Lynn says.

He compared it to the difference between their freshmen and sophomore years on the court.

"They really had two drastically different seasons. One noteworthy one where they helped the team win a Big Ten Championship. THe other one where the season did not go well, and they had to be counted on as leaders as just sophomores," Lynn says. "It did not have any negative impact on their relationship. 

All it takes is spending a little time with Spec and Corwin to understand why nothing seems to diminish their friendship. While they are both highly competitive, they stay steady in their emotions knowing what they have to work on. That positive way of thinking is something that the Gopher tennis team as a whole strives to have.

"Every tennis player has adversity in every single match. If you are able to stay the course and stay calm and keep the right perspective, then you are going to be rewarded for it," Young says. "The type of culture and environment we have is the kind that we want everyone to be real with each other and feel safe to say how it is."

Though their path has been unpredictable, one thing that has remained a constant is that their friendship can get them through even the most trying times. It has been like that since the start.

"It was my first week getting to know Matic, and the campus for that matter," Corwin says, reflecting on the time they had spent together. "We did not realize that we had gone deep into [the campus-adjacent] Como -neighborhood] and had no idea how to get back. It started pouring rain ... and we walked around the same block numerous times. After an hour or so of comical confusion, we finally walked back into familiar territory where we then made it back to our dorm at 17th." 

This story was written by Ryan Tibbitts and first ran in Ski U Mah, the Gopher Sports magazine.