From ‘little retriever’ to ‘emotional catalyst’: Cleeve Harper’s stranded summer in Florida helps take game to next level

Ross Fisher

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 23 issue of The Daily Texan.

While most college tennis players were quarantining, Texas sophomore Cleeve Harper was playing matches against professional opponents in Florida, taking his game to the next level.

Harper said he arrived at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Florida, in May 2020, and ended up staying for nearly three months because he could not go back to his hometown in Calgary, Alberta. But the Canadian took advantage, earning the opportunity to play matches against ATP Top 600 opponents five or six times a week.

“(In Florida), I got to compete with guys I usually don’t get to play against,” Harper said. “I won quite a few, and I had some close matches in a few of them. That definitely gave me a ton of confidence in my game, playing that aggressive tennis, because against those guys, you can’t just stay back and just make balls. You gotta take it to them because they’re the top guys.”

His boost in confidence made a big difference this season. Not only has Harper locked in a spot in the lineup at No. 4 singles and No. 2 doubles, but he has also become the fulcrum of this young Texas team, head coach Bruce Berque said.

“He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten more competitive, (and) he’s the emotional catalyst of the team,” Berque said. “His game has completely transformed in the two years since he’s been here. When he came in January 2019 and redshirted, he was a little retriever, who would just keep the ball in play and play defensively. Now, he’s become an offensive player who likes to finish at the net and really impose his will on his opponent.”

When Harper became eligible last year, he was still on the fringe of the singles lineup. At that point, the typically quiet Harper adopted a “hype man” on-court persona to stand out from the pack, but he said it also helped improve his game.

“I knew that was my best chance to get in the lineup,” Harper said. “I was kind of fighting for that number six spot, and (being more vocal) really helped me with my own game as well, and I just tried to keep it up.”

Harper’s energy has been infectious this season, especially in doubles. Playing at No. 2 with fellow Canadian and junior Chih Chi Huang, the duo ranked No. 78. Harper’s energy rubs off on his partner and the other Texas pairings on either side of him.

“When you’re playing beside someone that’s bringing so much energy no matter what the score is, I think that helps the courts beside us to give them a boost,” Huang said. “And it seems to be the case that when he does that, there seems to be good things that follow, not just for us, but for the guys around us.”

The emergence of Harper, as well as other young talents on the team, has led the No. 2 Texas men’s tennis team to its highest ranking since January 2020, outperforming expectations.

“I think if you asked most people — college players, coaches, anything of that sort — at the start of the year, if they thought Texas was gonna win the Big 12, I don’t think you’ll get many yeses,” Huang said. “I think we’ve proven a lot of people wrong.”

While Texas clinched a share of the Big 12 regular season title, in large part due to Harper’s performance, the team is hungry for more, setting their sights on the Big 12 Championship this weekend and the NCAA Championship in May.