In only a few days the torch — or, perhaps better, the tennis racket — will be passed.
Rok Bonin, the sixth Gophers men’s tennis player to be a three-time All-Big Ten selection and a smart player with the quickness to get an edge on opponents and a forehand to finish them, will soon play his last match for the team.
It will fall to sophomore Leandro Toledo, the Big Ten’s reigning Freshman of the Year and a big, strong player who likes to force the action on the court, to fill Bonin’s sneakers.
And so, as they were preparing to go out into the (finally) warm sun to practice this week, the two players — Bonin from Slovenia, Toledo from Germany — talked about the upcoming NCAA tournament, the last time the two will play together.
“I think he could be as good as me,” Bonin said, smiling, gently giving Toledo the needle.
“Of course he did,” Toledo said, rolling his eyes, when informed of Bonin’s comment.
But seriously: Bonin and Toledo, carrying on the tradition of strong contributions from international players, have led the Gophers into their fifth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers (14-10) will face Virginia Commonwealth (20-6) in the first round Friday in Charlottesville, Va. This is a rematch; the Gophers, who struggled early in the season, lost to VCU 5-2 on Jan. 25.
A victory likely would match the Gophers against regional host Virginia (24-0), the second-ranked team in the country.
The Gophers are confident. After that slow start the team rallied down the stretch, finishing tied for second in the Big Ten at 9-2.
“We started [slowly], but a lot of matches were really close,” said Gophers coach Geoff Young, whose team has made the national tournament in six of his seven seasons. “We weren’t playing our best tennis, but a point here or there and it could have been a different story. But when we started going on a run there, in the Big Ten we won some 4-3 matches that could have gone the other way.”
After a 4-3 loss to Wisconsin on Feb. 23, Young went into the locker room and wrote “0-0” on the board, symbolically restarting the season. The team finished the rest of the conference schedule 9-1.
And that is thanks in large part to Bonin, who normally plays No. 1 singles, and Toledo (No. 2).
Both of the players went 24-11 overall and 9-2 in conference play. Both were named first-team all conference, Toledo for the second consecutive time; he has the chance to become the first player in program history to do it four times. Bonin, who also qualified for the NCAA singles tournament, will be a student coach next season.
“It’s always good to have a really good player practicing with you,” Toledo said of Bonin. “It helped me grow a lot, with his wisdom, his knowledge. He has been a big help for me.”
Said Bonin: “As a freshman he was very good — better than I was. I think he’s going to be great. He will do great things here.”
“Leandro is just as good a player as Rok, but he’s missing a couple of years of experience that Rok has,” Young said.
Together, the two players hope to get the Gophers past VCU and into the second round of the tournament. The second-place finish in the Big Ten was Minnesota’s highest since 2000.
“It was close,” Young said of the last match with VCU. “And I’m sure it’s going to be really close again. But I think we’re a little different team than back at the beginning of the season.”