Six-foot-seven tennis players with overpowering serves don’t usually lurk under the radar.
But Peter Kobelt’s path to the top of college tennis hasn’t been so conventional. Tennis players, as much or more than most young athletes, tend to specialize at an early age. They play year-round with intense training and tournament schedules. That’s how they climb and sustain the rankings that are used to differentiate the supposed top players.
Kobelt, now a national championship contender for Ohio State, did not choose that path. The fourth-year junior from New Albany also loved basketball, which because of his size isn’t surprising. He wasn’t ready to drop either sport, so he spent half the year doing each.
“I had virtually no (tennis) ranking, especially USTA, where you have to build points,” Kobelt said. “By the end of the summer I wasn’t bad (in the rankings), but then I’d stick my rackets back in the closet and pull out my basketball shoes.”
And thus his ranking would plummet. Not that he has any regrets. There are more important things than junior tennis rankings. But in terms of grasping his potential, it cost him some.
“A lot of tennis is about confidence and belief, and you get that by playing in and winning tournaments,” Kobelt said. “I didn’t get a lot of that coming out of high school and junior tennis because I didn’t play as much.”
Kobelt did win the 2009 high-school Division I state singles championship, and Ohio State coach Ty Tucker saw enough of Kobelt’s talent to recruit him to join the Buckeyes.
After Kobelt redshirted as a freshman,, his career has taken off. He was atop the NCAA singles rankings in early January and is now ranked eighth with a 32-7 record. If Ohio State is to make a make a run at the NCAA Tournament team championship starting with today’s round of 16 match against Texas A&M in Urbana, Ill., Kobelt will have to help lead the way.
Kobelt and teammate Blaz Rola will then compete in next week’s individual championship in Urbana.
Last fall, Kobelt wondered whether he could win the individual national title. Not anymore.
“Definitely,” he said. “It’s been my goal. I didn’t really know what my goals were at the beginning of the fall, but I’ve been competing with the best players in the country. Now my goal is definitely to go there and try to go four to five days and hold up the trophy and try to go to New York (with the U.S. Open spot that goes to the NCAA champion).
Kobelt is a contender largely because of his 135 mph serve. His service rarely is broken, which means that opponents usually have to win tiebreakers if they are to defeat him.
“His serve is big, and he’s got a nasty spin and a good kick on it,” Tucker said.
Kobelt also has a strong forehand. What Tucker wants Kobelt to improve is his touch at the net. Kobelt also believes he needs to keep improving his backhand, return of serve and footwork.
“I don’t think I’m too far off on any stroke or any shot,” Kobelt said. “I just have to put my mind to it and focus and work hard.”
That’s no issue since coming to Ohio State. Tucker demands maximum dedication from his players, and Kobelt has taken to Tucker’s relentlessness, even if he acknowledges with a smile that there have been touchy “moments” between them.
“He’s really good at tearing you down and then building you right back up,” Kobelt said.
The next week and a half will gauge how far Kobelt has come.
“I feel I’ll have a good judgment of where my game is after the team and individual tournament,” he said. “A lot of people say I have a chance to make it pretty high on the pro tour.
“But potential might be my least favorite word. I’ve been described as having a lot of potential my whole life, and usually when you have potential, it means you haven’t really done anything yet.”
Tucker believes Kobelt has more room to develop.
“The average age of the top 100 in the world is 27,” he said. “There’s time for him. You see a lot of these college guys in their fourth year who are 85 to 90 percent developed. Pete is 60 percent developed. He has some serious upside.”