Tennis head coach Bruce Berque has one special Yuya Ito memory.
Last May, Ito was set to face No. 8 Petros Chrysochos, last year’s singles champion and four-time All-American in the finals of the NCAA Championships.
“Chrysochos was arguably the best player in college tennis for the last couple of years,” Berque said. “I wasn’t really sure how Yuya felt because everyone was saying that we had almost no chance to win those top two spots.”
So Berque asked Ito asked for a final chat the night before the match.
“When I went in, I could tell (coach Berque) was worried that I was going to go into this match thinking that this guy is really good and that I would have too much respect for him,” Ito said.
But Ito wasn’t worried.
“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘There’s no way I’m losing this match tomorrow,’” Berque said.
The Japanese native delivered on his promise, rallying after losing the first set to clinch the first national championship in Longhorn tennis history.
The senior hasn’t slowed down one bit since that victory. Ito won the Intercollegiate Tennis Association All-Americans singles title in October, earning National Player of the Month honors. A month later, he became the first Longhorn to win the ITA Fall National Championships singles title earlier this November.
It was the third time in history that any player has won both individual titles in the same year.
While Ito couldn’t have predicted this level of success when he started playing tennis, he saw his first hint of future success after making the semifinals in a national tournament at 12 years old.
“That was the first time when I kind of knew I had a chance,” Ito said. “I still might not be good enough, but I had a chance. That’s when I thought I should try and be the best I can be.”
There was still a long road ahead for Ito, who moved over 4,800 miles away to Australia for his high school career. His parents decided even though Ito couldn’t speak any English at the time, the move would be beneficial to both his academic and tennis careers.
“It was hard for me to communicate because I couldn’t really say anything I wanted to say,” Ito said. “I had some tough moments.”
But looking back, Ito said he’s glad his parents chose to move him to Australia for one reason: meeting Luke Smith, his tennis trainer. Ito credits him with not only improving his tennis game but also influencing him to go to college rather than going pro.
“When I was younger, I wanted to go pro straight out of high school,” Ito said. “That’s pretty much everyone’s dream … But (Smith) recommended going to college to build my physical strength and improve.”
In his second cross-continental move to Austin, Ito struggled for a different reason.
“The transition here was a lot easier than it was when I moved to Australia,” Ito said. “But I was really frustrated those first two semesters because I had injury issues … I still remember learning how to manage my mental state as well as my physical state.”
But that experience managing the mental aspect of his life and his game has paid off.
“He’s a perfectionist, and he tended to be pretty hard on himself if he wasn’t playing up to his level,” Berque said. “Now, I think he’s become one of the most mentally tough players in the country.”
Even despite the high praise, Ito said the biggest thing he needs to work on for his spring semester is staying mentally consistent. It’s part of the mentality that’s helped Ito through his multiple moves and made him into one of the best players in the country.
“I think anyone who knows anything about college tennis knows that he’s playing the best out of any player in the country,” Berque said. “If you asked 100 people who the best player in college tennis is right now, most likely all 100 would say Yuya."
Ito could become the second player in collegiate tennis history to win all three major singles tournaments if he wins the NCAA Singles title this spring. The first player to accomplish that feat? Chrysochos, who Ito beat to clinch last year’s national championship.
A year later, with his cycle of competitors coming full circle, Ito has the chance to make individual history.
But he doesn’t care about personal records.
“I can’t stop here,” Ito said. “That national championship is my goal for now.”