Shabaz Has Grown Into UVa Success

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Michael Shabaz has 127 doubles wins and 117 singles wins in his UVa career.

There’s something, though probably not one thing, about doubles that just clicks for Virginia senior Michael Shabaz. That’s clear from looking at his track record at UVa and beyond. Shabaz, after all, has captured two straight NCAA doubles championships and won the Wimbledon junior boys’ doubles title in 2005. All with different partners.

Overall, Shabaz’s doubles record at UVa is 127-29. While that record does include one disappointing loss to USC in the NCAA Tournament semifinals last season that helped end the Hoos’ run at the elusive National Championship, it still represents a sterling winning percentage of 81.4%. Individually, Shabaz is just seven doubles wins shy of the school record held by Treat Huey.

Doubles, it seems, are a family affair. Currently an instructor at 4 Star Tennis Academy, Michael’s sister Nicole also excelled at doubles; she teamed up at Cal Polytechnic to be ranked in the top 20 doubles teams in the NCAA in 2004-2005.

“I don’t know actually. It’s come easier to us. I think doubles requires a lot of skills and I guess we’re pretty technically skilled at a high level. I’ve had a lot of good partners too,” Michael Shabaz said. “We grew up playing a lot of it, that’s for sure.”

Indeed, the Shabaz siblings grew up playing a lot of tennis with their father Vladimir working as their coach along with other instructors as their games developed. UVa coach Brian Boland credits that background for Michael Shabaz’s feel for the sport of tennis in both singles and doubles. Add the knack for the sport with the varied technical skills and you’ve got one of the nation’s top collegiate players.

“What I think makes Michael a great doubles player is that he has great instincts. I think first and foremost, however, he trusts himself. He really has an uncanny level of confidence in his doubles,” Boland said. “More specifically, in terms of his game, he has a big serve, he handles the big moments very well where he gets himself out of trouble with his big serve, and he also probably has without question one of the best returns in not only college tennis, but around the world. I think his return continues to get better as he’s become more flexible in his positioning on the court. Then he has really good feel with his hands around the net, which is a credit to his upbringing and what a great job his father Vladimir and his coach Jim Shepard did with him. They worked really hard with Michael on developing his court sense and his feel and touch around the net and really getting a sense for how to anticipate and play and where to find the holes. He’s continued to develop that in college.”

Boland also calls Shabaz “a student of the game of tennis” because of his court sense and ability to read the game strategically, something that has developed quite a bit in four years at Virginia. That’s because Shabaz has become more flexible – not physically, but mentally – as a player. Once a masher and only a masher on the baseline, Shabaz no longer goes for broke on each and every shot. Instead, he’s developed a sense of when to play offense or defense or to just stay in the point. Shabaz, who has placed an emphasis on improved fitness, says that his “shot tolerance has gotten better” as well, meaning that he can handle more styles from his opponents.

Part of that evolution is a credit to the coaches, but Shabaz has “gotten better at listening to the coaches and listening to other input as each year has passed by” and he has adapted his style to feature more skills. That has allowed his game to grow along with his maturity at UVa. As a result, Shabaz is one of Virginia’s most accomplished players in program history. In addition to all the doubles success and the No. 2 national ranking there, he holds a 117-32 record in singles and is currently ranked No. 5 in the ITA singles rankings. On the Cavalier career charts, he ranks sixth in singles wins, second in doubles wins, and fourth in combined wins. In dual matches, he ranks fifth in singles wins and third in doubles wins. Shabaz also received the ACC Player of the Week award seven times in his career, second to only Somdev Devvarman’s nine career weekly awards. Shabaz, an Anthropology major, received that honor a record five times this season and is the first UVa player to do it three weeks in a row.

“I think when I first came here I was pretty stuck in my ways and I had pretty much one game. I feel like now over four years I really worked on developing some of my other [skills] and employing a few different game styles and also maturing,” Shabaz said. “I think when you’re 18, 19, you’re kind of a punk and you’re just kind of going into these tournaments and playing them. I think college actually really humbled me and gave me an opportunity to work with some pretty good coaches that are really dedicated to making guys better. They’ve invested a lot of time into me and I’m grateful for that. … They’ve had a huge impact on me so I’m really lucky in that sense.”

Boland feels lucky to have coached Shabaz in return.

“He started to get a little bit better playing defense in his junior year, but to play defense you have to be extremely fit. He’s also been more willing to not try to create something and make offense when it is almost impossible to do it,” Boland said. “He’s willing to play in different positions on the court according to who his opponent is and make adjustments throughout the course of the match. So he’s making better choices on the court, but the reason he’s making better choices – because he’s always been a very knowledgeable player and he’s always had a great IQ for tennis – is that his fitness has allowed him to adjust more in matches. He’s really trying to find that balance and he’s found it more than ever in his career over the last [few weeks] and if he continues to find that balance and to be a three dimensional player – in other words, he can play offense, he can play defense ,and he can play neutral – then the sky’s the limit on the pro tour. I’m really excited not only for what he can do for the Virginia Cavaliers through the rest of his time here, which is obviously running out, but for his transition into professional tennis. He’s also growing. He’s become less stubborn and more open to learning and improving and he’s just been a real joy to work with for the time that we’ve had him.”

Before that time runs out, however, Shabaz and his teammates have one more goal on their list. Yes, the Cavaliers have won four straight ITA National Team Indoor Championships, the first program to ever accomplish that feat, and seniors Sanam Singh and Shabaz have never lost an ACC or a home match. Still, the Hoos have their minds set toward UVa’s first National Championship in the outdoor season. With the top seed in tow for the fourth straight season, that quest begins with Sacred Heart in the NCAA Tournament’s first round at 1 p.m. on Friday at the Snyder Tennis Center.

“In our minds, the big goal is still the National Championship. We know in the back of our minds we’ve done a lot, but we probably won’t appreciate it until five or 10 years down the road when we really look back,” Shabaz said. “We’ve been part of a really, really historic program that’s had a lot of success. Hopefully we can bring something to it that nobody else has brought to it, which is a National Championship.”

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