If you ask Matt Nardella, he’ll tell you, he hates to lose.
That translates onto the court for Penn men’s tennis. Over spring break, Nardella, a freshman, found himself in a duel with UC Irvine’s Rafael Dividian. And although he was winning, he didn’t feel too well.
Having played much of the winter indoors in the chilly Northeastern corridor, he was suffering from the California heat. But Nardella managed to close out the match ... and immediately threw up after match point. For the second time that day.
Before arriving at Penn as a five-star recruit, Nardella made quite a splash in his hometown of Manlius, N.Y., just outside of Syracuse. During his time at Christian Brothers Academy, he amassed an unblemished record. Last year, while ranked No. 1 in the state, he dropped just one of 132 games he played in Section III matches.
But while Nardella was often a mismatch for his local opponents, he did have some competition nearby: His twin brother, Colin, who’s now a member of Lehigh’s program, also went undefeated at Christian Brothers.
“It helped my game,” Nardella said of growing up with his brother. “Every day, you have someone pushing you in practice and someone your same age going through the same exact stuff tennis-wise.”
However, he and his brother weren’t always competing. Last year, they both decided to forego competing in the state singles tournament, in which Matt would have been favored to win, and teamed up in the doubles competition. They took the state championship, dropping just one set along the way.
Behind the scenes of all this is what one might expect to see with a prodigy: endless practice. Every day before high school, Nardella would get up early in the morning and go hit at a local club. The club wasn’t exactly open that early, but his coach oversaw the club. After school, he was right back there.
“It’s just a lot of commitment,” Nardella said. “Every weekend you’re more or less favored to win, so you kind of have to take on that role and want to win.”
Nardella gradually started to pop up on tennis coaches’ radars outside of the Manlius area. And a couple summers ago, he popped up on Penn coach David Geatz’s radar as well. Geatz was impressed that Nardella had worked his way up from a small town onto a national stage — and also liked that Nardella was left-handed.
“He was a real competitive kid,” Geatz remembers thinking. “I don’t know, I just thought he was going to end up being really good.”
While coming from Manlius helped impress Geatz, growing up there also motivated Nardella to attend a college somewhere more urban. Penn fit the bill, and the rest is history — or at least most of the first season is.
When he arrived on campus in the fall, Nardella says he realized “he couldn’t compete with everyone,” but by the time winter break ended, he was right where Geatz had envisioned him this year: among Penn’s top four singles slots, where he’s accumulated a total of 11 wins, more than anyone else on the squad.
“I thought he’d have a winning record no matter where we put him,” Geatz said.
What exactly his future holds depends on whom you ask. Nardella hopes to win an Ivy League Championship and go deep in NCAAs, but he doesn’t think he sees himself in the competitive tennis world after college. Geatz, on the other hand, says he could be.
“He has a chance to be great,” Geatz said. “If it’s important to him ... he could make a career out of going out and playing doubles on the [professional] tour.”Comments powered by Disqus
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