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Domijan waits on pros

Top freshman chooses college, brings storied background to Virginia

Three days after the Virginia men's tennis team bowed out in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament last May, coach Brian Boland received a call. It was from Alex Domijan, the nation's top recruit, who informed Boland - on the coach's birthday, coincidentally - that he had decided to play tennis at Virginia.

"We put it on speaker phone at the house," Domijan's mother, Anne Curtis, recalled last week. "Alex told Brian he was going to Virginia, and Brian was just ecstatic."

For much of his sterling junior career, the 6-foot-7 Domijan, who, at age 19, has risen to No. 2 in the collegiate singles rankings, had his sights set on Virginia; he just wasn't sure whether postponing a professional career was the right choice.

In high school, Domijan played Futures events - the professional tennis equivalent of minor leagues - and broke the top 550 in the ATP world rankings while competing as an amateur at some of the far-flung venues his peers who chose not to attend college continue to frequent. In May, Domijan ultimately decided enrolling at Virginia was the right decision for furthering his development.

"I always felt like I was going to go to college," Domijan said. "I really felt like my results weren't great enough to make me go pro."

'He's bleeding'\nBecause of his height, Domijan dominates opponents with his serve and power - elements of a "big game," as Rene Moller, Domijan's coach for many years at Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Wesley Chapel, Fl., and others referred to it. But Moller also said one of Domijan's key advantages is his exceptional ability to play through pain, a trait likely bred on Saddlebrook's sweltering Florida campus, where humidity inflates heat indexes well into the triple digits.

Moller recalls a time when Domijan passed out and fell off his bike while riding home at midday after an exhausting summer practice. Domijan picked himself up off the ground and made it home. When Domijan returned to Saddlebrook for another practice that afternoon, Moller was aghast at his condition.

"He comes back at one o'clock, he's got blood all over him, his left hand is completely ripped up, he's got a huge gash on the side of his head. I mean a massive, massive gash," Moller said. "He's bleeding through his shirt, he's got cuts all over the place, and I'm sort of going, 'What the hell are you doing?' And he's like, 'Well, I fell off my bike.' And I'm like, 'Okay, well, let's get you taken care of.' And he says, 'No, no, I want to practice.'"

The fact that Domijan decided to play that afternoon, Moller said, underscored not only his dedication to the game, but also his toughness and stamina - traits that come in handy during long and grueling three-set matches.

"That was the day I thought, 'Man, this kid's got something special,'" Moller said. "I always knew he was good. He's got those intangible qualities that you can't teach."

Climbing through the ranks\nDomijan started playing tennis at age 3 1/2 and achieved success rather quickly as a junior growing up in Florida. His mother, a cardiologist, and his father, an electrical engineering professor, built a tennis court in their backyard, where Domijan practiced during his early years.

"His grandfather would pick him up from school every day, take him home and work with him in the backyard," Domijan's mother said. "Little by little, he taught him his strokes and everything he needed to do."

Domijan played in his first competitive tournament at age 6, and his parents soon decided he needed to train on a bigger stage. During the summers, Domijan lived at Saddlebrook, which is located near Tampa - a two-hour drive from their house in Gainesville. In eighth grade, he enrolled at Saddlebrook Preparatory School, a private school for top tennis players who train four hours a day, six days a week and attend classes in between.

Yet even though Domijan eventually would reach the top spot in the American junior rankings, he struggled at times on larger stages. When asked which losses from his junior career still nag him, Domijan pointed to a defeat during the qualifying tournament for the junior U.S. Open, which draws the world's top players aged 18 and under.

"I had three match points in the third set, and I lost it," said Domijan, who had turned just 15 at the time. "It was the final round of qualis, and I would've made main draw. I still can't believe I lost that match."

His mother said she watched him play a match at the 2009 junior Wimbledon quarterfinals where Domijan clearly faltered under pressure.

"He converted zero out of 12 break points," she said. "Any of those he converts, and he was in the semifinals of Wimbledon and might've even won it. But that sort of thing where he gets to the semifinals or finals of a big tournament - sometimes he can bring out his best, sometimes he doesn't. And what he needs to be able to do is play well in the big moments, and there'll be plenty of those this year at Virginia."

Matching up with McEnroe\nDomijan's demeanor on court has always been cool and collected, even as his opponents have expressed frustration at their inability to penetrate his imposing game. But he is also known as someone who remains grounded off the court, always taking the many rewards of being one of America's best junior prospects in stride.

For the past two summers, Domijan has been invited to play World Team Tennis - a league made up of mostly professional players selected to teams based in various cities across the country. Last summer the young Domijan, a member of the New York Buzz, faced a 51-year-old John McEnroe, the seven-time Grand Slam champion and star of the New York Sportimes who is perhaps more famous for his on-court antics and tirades against officials than he is for his formidable exploits as a player.

"John McEnroe was acting up in that match," Domijan's mother said. "The whole time Alex is on the other side of the court just going about his business. He let Johnny Mac carry on, and he just went on and beat him."

Domijan's mother said the family still keeps a DVD of the match, which they watch on occasion.

"We didn't really talk," Domijan said of his interactions with McEnroe. "He just said, 'Hey,' and then, 'Bye.'"

Meeting the hype\nDomijan has dropped just one set so far this spring season, though the top-ranked Cavaliers have yet to face any team ranked higher than No. 12 in the country. This weekend, however, they are likely to see top-10 teams at the National Team Indoors in Seattle, Wash., and their lineup may be stretched at times.

But that lineup is much improved with the addition of Domijan, who, Boland said at the start of the spring campaign, has developed ever since last fall, when he became only the third freshman ever to have won the ITA All-American tournament.

"I think earlier on, in the fall, he was a little bit more tentative than he wanted to be," Boland said. "He's starting to come forward now. He has good feel and movement around the net. His overall game has really improved."

Asked how Domijan can prepare himself for the professional game while in college, Moller said he needs to mature physically so he can keep up with the rough-and-tumble style of the top male professional players.

"Big guys usually grow into their bodies a little bit later than the smaller guys do," Moller said. "He's not going to grow into his body until he's probably 23, 24, even. But that doesn't mean he can't have good results earlier."

Moller said Domijan should enjoy his time in college and enter the professional game when he feels he is ready - a decision he alone should make.

"I don't think there's any rush necessarily to turn pro," Moller said. "I think a lot of people are saying, 'Oh, you should only stay one year and turn pro.' But I'd be quite happy if he stayed all four years and got his degree"