Gustavus Adolphus, Division III Tennis the Right Choice for Eric Butorac
Butorac thanks Wilkinson for ATP Doubles success
Written by Mark Patton
Eric Butorac is knocking on the door of the ATP Millionaires' Club, but fame and fortune weren't on his agenda when he walked through the gates of Gustavus Adolphus College as a sophomore transfer in 2001.
"Honestly, at the time, if I'd even been thinking about playing pro tennis, I probably would've gone to a different school," Butorac said of his decision to leave Ball State for the NCAA Division III college in St. Peter, Minn.
But it turned out to be the right school — and the right coach in Steve Wilkinson — to mold him into the person that would become one of the world's top doubles players.
"Steve changed my life," he said.
Butorac, who was ranked as high as No. 17 in doubles last year while making the Australian Open semifinals, has won 13 Association of Tennis Professional championships and $940,959 in prize money since turning professional in 2003. He most recently won this year's Brazil Open with partner Bruno Soares.
He is one of only three players from the NCAA Division 3 ranks to ever make a living on the tour, although another, John Mattke, was also a Gustavus graduate, Class of 1980. Butorac's World Team Tennis coach on the Boston Lobsters, Bud Schultz, was the other Division III pro, having graduated from Bates College.
"We have a unique emphasis at Gustavus that I think helped prepare Eric for what he was going to experience as a pro," said Wilkinson, who retired in 2009 as the winningest coach in college tennis history with a record of 929-279.
Ironically, winning tennis matches wasn't among the "three crowns of brilliance" that Wilkinson would craft for each of his players during four decades at Gustavus. The three traits were about being positive in all situations, effort and sportsmanship.
"The three crowns focus on those things that are within our control," said Wilkinson, who has remained at Gustavus as a volunteer assistant for his successor, Tommy Valentini. "It's how we judge success."
Butorac — whose parents, Tim and Jan, operate Minnesota's Rochester Tennis Connection — was introduced to that philosophy as soon as he was gripping a racket at age 5. He attended the Tennis and Life Camps that Wilkinson founded on the Gustavus campus in 1977. The camps draw about 1,700 participants per year.
"My dad played for Steve at Gustavus, and I've known Steve for as long as I can remember, when I started going to his camps," he said. "He really helped put me on a path to be successful.
"He was careful to not define that in terms of wins and losses, or rankings, but just in getting better every day to become the best player and person you could be. That included how good of a sport you are, how you treat opponents, and the relationships you develop with people.
"Those three things, I've carried with me."
He's carried them all the way into his third term on the ATP Players Council.
"One of the biggest things I brag about is how he's respected by his fellow ATP professionals that way," Wilkinson said. "In talking to high school kids, I ask them, 'What would be the highest measure of success?' I think, in that sense, Eric has achieved it by being recognized by his peers as someone they'd want to represent them."
Several of those players have even agreed to appear at Butorac's Minnesota Tennis Challenge, a fund-raiser for the youth of his home state. Proceeds from the event directly benefit St. Paul Urban Tennis, the Fred Wells Tennis and Education Center, and the Rochester Boys & Girls Club.
Butorac wasn't even Gustavus' No. 1 player after returning home in 2001 to attend the nearby Gustavus campus. But he closed out his senior season of 2003 by winning both the NCAA Division III singles and doubles championships, with Kevin Whipple as his partner.
Butorac didn't stop his winning ways once his collegiate
career ended. He is now claiming hardware on the
Butorac decided to take the next step after his graduation, moving to France to pursue a pro career under the tutelage of Ryan Dussault. He earned his first ranking in October of that year by winning the French Futures doubles in Plaisir, but it was still a long way from the Grand Slam courts of London, Paris, New York and Melbourne.
"His ability to make it on the tour has more to do with his perseverance and ability to stay positive through a series of setbacks — of getting beat week after week, and being willing to hang with that," Wilkinson said. "When you don't have someone who's bank-rolling you as you do it, you have to make sacrifices in where you're eating, and in sleeping on couches, and with everything else that goes into it, and that includes having to live outside the United States.
"Eric went to France to work his way up through the ranks. His willingness to make sacrifices, and to stick with it, has had as much to do with his making it as any kind of overwhelming, natural ability."
It took Butorac four years to make it to his first Grand Slam.
"My first time on the grass courts at Wimbledon (in 2007), with my parents and friends in the crowd, I remember thinking, 'Wow! This is for real!'" he said.
Butorac did bring some physical attributes to doubles as a tall (6-foot-3) left-hander who could play the ad court.
"He's rangy, and he understands doubles strategy as well as anyone," Wilkinson said. "He's been coached by some of the better doubles strategists in the game.
"The thing Eric has developed the most in the last few years has been his service return — his ability to take a powerful serve and direct its return. That really helps, especially against teams like the (No. 1-ranked) Bryan brothers."
The Intercollegiate Tennis Association will tap into that expertise in December when Butorac gives a power-point presentation on doubles at its annual coaches convention in Naples, Fla.
He's beaten such tennis greats as Rafael Nadal in doubles, but he regards his first clay-court title at Estoril, Portugal in 2009 as a greater measuring stick of his ascent in tennis.
"I considered that, personally, as a huge accomplishment, considering that I was from Minnesota and had never played on clay before I turned pro," he said. "I remember going to play in Monte Carlo and Barcelona in 2007, and how bad I was.
"But I worked at it, and when I won that first ATP title on clay, I really felt I conquered one of the toughest things for an American to do."
Butorac, who turned 31 on May 22, has won three other clay-court titles since then.
"I actually think it's a strength of mine now, and something that I'm secretly very proud of," he said.
He's proud of his roots, as well, having asked Wilkinson to accompany him to Wimbledon as his coach last year.
Butorac has taken his own first steps into coaching, joining the men's tennis staff at Harvard as a volunteer assistant in August 2010.
"I really love it," he said. "It's more fun working with the guys than with my own game."
After all, there is a lot of Steve Wilkinson in Eric Butorac.