When you speak about tennis in the Pac-12, the last school you think of is Utah — the school in the mountains, the school with the long winters. Utahns don’t swing tennis racquets, do they? Don’t they wear them on their feet to walk through the snow?

“We knew we had a talented team, but could we achieve this? We overachieved. Usually if you win the Pac-12 you’re fighting for a national championship.” — Utah coach Roeland Brateanu

Anyway, while the Utes are stuck indoors and trying to stay warm, most of the Pac-12 gang is slumming it in shorts and sunshine and, oh, yeah, playing tennis outdoors year-round, which at least partly accounts for how Stanford, USC and UCLA have won more than 50 NCAA tennis championships.

And Utah has won zero.

This year the winter was so long and the snow so deep that the Utes were able to play only one home match outdoors. 

And yet somehow the Utes pulled it off. They pushed their way into the Sunshine Club and won a share of the regular-season Pac-12 championship and now they’re headed to the NCAA tournament. That’s like Arizona winning the alpine ski championship. Along the way, the Utes beat Stanford, Arizona (twice), Arizona State and UCLA (twice).

How does that happen?

“We  knew we had a talented team, but could we achieve this? We overachieved,” says Utah coach Roeland Brateanu, whose team had never had a winning record in Pac-12 play until this year’s 6-2 mark. “Usually if you win the Pac-12 you’re fighting for a national championship.”

The Utes’ Pac-12 tennis championship is as unlikely as Utah’s Pac-12 baseball championship in 2016.

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The Utes have all the disadvantages; besides winter and snow and having to play indoors most of the time, they play at altitude, where the air is thinner and the ball travels faster and carries farther. That’s great for baseball, but not in a sport in which the ball must land in a confined area. It takes some getting used to when they travel out of state for matches. Rival recruiters use the conditions against the Utes.

All of the above, says Brateanu, “has been used against us in recruiting.”

Notwithstanding, here the Utes are with a 23-5 record — the most wins in school history — and ranked 19th in the nation in the final regular-season poll after falling to USC in a close Pac-12 tournament final. The Utes will open NCAA tournament play against Old Dominion Saturday in the Chapel Hill Regional. 

The Utah program has taken off under Brateanu, who grew up in Amsterdam and came to the U.S. to play tennis, first for Arizona and then Utah. Later he worked as a hitting partner for 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, French Open finalist Martin Verkerk, and former world No. 1 player Jennifer Capriati.

He returned to Utah in 2007 as an assistant coach and eight years ago he was made head coach. Things happened quickly after that. In 2018, the Utes earned their first NCAA tournament invite in 21 years. They have reached the NCAA tournament four of the last six years now (one of those misses was the 2020 season that was canceled by the pandemic).

“When that first cycle of athletes made the NCAAs people started believing more, and we were able to recruit better players,” says Brateanu. “But the universe also has to work in your favor. The jump into the Pac-12 has made a difference in the athletes we can recruit.”

Like so many college tennis teams, the Utes have built their team around foreign athletes. Half of the roster (seven) is filled by athletes from Macedonia, Switzerland and especially Argentina. 

“Tennis is the second-most played sport in the world behind soccer,” says Brateanu. “There are great players around the world. College tennis has been getting stronger and stronger. Players come here to make it in the pros and for the opportunities in the ITA and the NIL.”

Five of the Utah players are from Argentina. The pipeline to Argentine players began with the hiring of Sten van Beurden as associate head coach a few years ago. Brateanu and van Beurden have known each other for 30 years — they grew up in the same neighborhood in Amsterdam and played in the same tennis club.

Van Beurden’s wife is from Argentina, where he lives in the offseason, providing a convenient recruiting opportunity for the Utes. Three of the team’s four winningest players this season are from Argentina — Francisco Bastias (17-7), Geronimo Espin Busleiman (18-4) and Franco Capalbo (17-6).

On Saturday the Utes’ unlikely season will continue when they play Old Dominion, the Sun Belt Conference champions. The Monarchs are ranked 62nd in the country with an 18-9 record.

No matter what happens, as Brateanu puts it, “It’s been a good ride.”

Utah’s Franco Capalbo prepares to serve against UC Davis in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Saturday, January 21, 2023. | Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics