By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
ATHENS, Ga. – Manny Diaz could hardly believe his eyes.
The Georgia head men’s tennis coach, whose decorated resume could probably rival the Atlanta phone book in thickness if he were to list each and every one of his accomplishments, was visiting with college teammate Bill Kopecky (with whom he teamed to win the 1974 Southeastern Conference No. 1 doubles title) prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, when Kopecky showed him a photograph.
The image was aged and tattered, but that didn’t make sense to Diaz. Surely it was a recent picture.
It had to be. After all, it looked just like his son Eric, a redshirt freshman on the Bulldogs’ tennis team.
But it wasn’t.
“About six months ago, my old teammate Bill Kopecky gave me a picture of when I was a sophomore and he and I were on the court together,” Diaz said. “I thought it was a picture of Eric. I hadn’t realized how much we looked like each other.”
Physically, Eric Diaz is a near mirror image of what his father looked like nearly 40 years ago.
“Eric looks identical to Manuel when he was 18,” said Suzanne Diaz, wife of Manny, mother to the couple’s three children and spectator to more than her fair share of tennis matches over the decades. “There’s an old photograph and I can’t tell which one is which – the whole body type, everything.”
Manny Diaz arrived in Athens in 1971 from San Juan, Puerto Rico, excited for a new adventure in tennis and in his life.
For all practical purposes, the two-time ITA All-American has never left. He has never seen any reason why he would.
After serving as an assistant for his college coach and legendary leader Dan Magill, Diaz took over the Georgia program in 1988. He has accumulated more than 500 victories since that time and ranks among the top-10 winningest active coaches in the nation. Diaz’s teams have finished in the top-five of the ITA rankings in four of the last six seasons.
He has led his team to four NCAA Championships as the program’s head coach and was an assistant on the other two national-title winning squads. He is one of only two active head coaches to win multiple NCAA Championships, joining USC’s Peter Smith, and is the only active coach to have claimed more than two.
Diaz is a three-time Wilson/ITA National Coach of the Year and has been inducted into both the State of Georgia Hall of Fame and the Puerto Rican Tennis Hall of Fame.
Even with all of those accomplishments, when he leaves his office each day in one of the nation’s premier tennis facilities and walks through his door at home, he has always just been Dad.
“Life is not about just tennis even with as much as it’s in our life,” Suzanne Diaz said. “We’re just Manuel and Suzanne with our kids. We don’t talk tennis at the dinner table. We have never done it, since the time we first met. I didn’t know a lot about tennis when I first met Manuel. It was just him and I, it wasn’t tennis Manuel and I. We have our separate little compartments that we put different parts of our life in.”
It’s that separation that allows the Diaz family to keep life in perspective, even if most of their time is spent at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex or at various stadiums across the country.
“You walk in my house and you don’t see one tennis trophy or picture,” Manny Diaz said. “It’s kind of a safe haven – it’s the opposite of everything I have at the office and it allows me to get away and think about other things. I’ve always wanted it to be that way.”
Manny and Suzanne tried to provide a normal childhood for their children, even though their schedules and activities were anything but normal.
Still, tennis was always a focal point.
“Everything was kind of centered around it,” Eric Diaz said, reflecting back on his childhood. “My older brother (Manuel III) didn’t really play tennis, but me and my younger brother (Alex) did. Everyone knew what my father did for a living. I may have missed some social stuff and maybe my life was a little bit more hectic, just traveling for tournaments.”
That he adopted the game himself was no surprise.
“He just picked it up … because he didn’t have a choice,” Manny Diaz said with a laugh from his office on Tuesday. “He was around it and I had some racquets at the house. He actually started hitting against a wooden fence and he would spend hours down there. Even as a baby, he would come and watch the team play some matches. He was around all the competition and around all these guys, seeing us in the finals of national championships and watching us win.”
Tennis was such a part of Eric Diaz’s life as a youngster that, when asked this past Tuesday, he couldn’t recollect how he had originally taken up the sport.
“I’m not really sure,” he said. “I was just around it so much. I would come out to the matches and see all the college guys playing. I knew it was just something that I wanted to do.”
Suzanne Diaz said, like each of her sons, Eric took an interest in the sport, and really became passionate about it as he got older.
“We all loved tennis and Eric really fell in love with tennis,” she said. “Eric stuck with it from about five or six. He looked up to his dad. He was very proud of him as a coach, but he really knew him more as just Dad. When Manny came home, it was Dad, it wasn’t Coach.”
Oh, those teenage years.
They’re never an easy time for anyone. It’s even harder when you’re growing up in a sports-dominant, classic college sports town where everyone knows that your father is a national-championship winning coach.
Eric Diaz had begun seeking his father’s advice on his tennis game, but like any teenager, sometimes rebellion is the path most travelled. Suddenly, Dad was also Coach.
It made for an interesting experience for the stubborn adolescent and the driven father, who both cared for each other very much.
“Eric didn’t really know that side of his dad until he started playing for him and there was a time when he was about 14 when they started having some clashing issues,” Suzanne Diaz said. “Manuel wanted him to be the best he could be and Eric was fighting that because he was a teenage boy. He wanted to prove that he could do it on his own.”
It was all too much.
“I was probably too hard on him and too impatient,” Manny Diaz reflected.
“I was too close to the action. Too invested.”
The Atlanta Braves may have been America’s team during Eric Diaz’s youth, but they were also his team. He had grown up in the team’s backyard and baseball had always piqued his interest.
It was worth a try.
“When I was younger, I was a big Atlanta Braves fan and I just kind of got into baseball and decided to play,” Eric Diaz said. “As I got older and older, I realized that I wasn’t built for baseball; I was just a little skinny kid.
“I had much more opportunities at tennis and I was a lot better at it. I started really getting serious about it then.”
When Eric Diaz made the decision to commit himself to tennis, there was no stopping him. Like his dad, he is impressively self motivated.
“He did it pretty much on his own,” Manny Diaz said. “At the time, I didn’t have much time to coach him and Athens didn’t have a whole lot for tennis like Atlanta does with its tennis academies and training. He got to where he got as a junior tennis player on his own.”
As a prep, Eric Diaz rose as high as No. 5 in the state rankings. At Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School, he became the school’s most decorated athlete winning three consecutive Georgia Independent School Association individual titles.
“Something just clicked when he was about 16,” Suzanne Diaz said.
It clicked because Eric Diaz had a definite goal in place. He knew where he wanted to be.
“It was just the fact that I wanted to get to the level that I’m starting to be at now at Georgia,” he said. “It was always a goal to become a starter for a school like this. Every step I took was a step to get to this. That’s how I motivated myself.”
“Are you sure???”
Those were the first words out of Manny Diaz’s mouth when his son reached the decision that he wanted to play tennis at Georgia.
Deep down, he was excited by the opportunity to work with his son every day, but would it be best for Eric? His junior experience hadn’t prepared him to face the type of competition he would see at Georgia and it was doubtful if he would see much playing time early on. Plus, what about the college experience?
“I went 3,000 miles away from home from Puerto Rico and I was kind of hoping college would be that kind of experience for him so that he could become his own person and have the sort of independence that I had,” Manny Diaz said. “I tried to talk him into going somewhere where he could play right away.”
But Eric Diaz had already made up his mind.
“He really wanted to come to Georgia,” Manny Diaz said. “He wanted to go through the top-notch training and give himself a great opportunity. His point to me was that he would rather go through the training at Georgia and give himself the opportunity to train with the very best.”
The more Eric’s father thought about his son’s aspirations, the more assured he became that his son wouldn’t miss out on all that college had to offer.
“As I thought about his decision, I thought, that’s not really going to be a problem; he’s been very independent since he has been a toddler,” Manny Diaz said. “He worked on his own through high school and he had a very strong mindset. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem, I just wanted him to be a regular college student without his dad looking over his shoulder.”
As much as it made sense to the Diaz family, the outside world wasn’t as accepting, initially.
“I think Eric had a hard time in juniors because he wanted to go to Georgia and some of the kids knew who his dad was, so they were saying that he just wanted to go here because he could get on the team,” Suzanne Diaz said. “Eric knew Georgia was one of the best growing up and he always wanted to be a part of it. It was always one of Eric’s longtime goals.”
Eric Diaz refused to listen to the critical comments of some of his peers.
“For me, I tried to just ignore it, but I’m sure everybody else knew,” he said. “When I first decided that I wanted to come to Georgia, I wasn’t at a very high level, tennis-wise.”
In fact, Manny Diaz thinks that doubt that his son felt from the junior tennis community fueled his growth in the sport.
“People would say that there was only one reason he had this opportunity,” he said. “Deep down, I think that really developed sort of a burning desire in him. It was just that ‘I’ll show you’ attitude. He worked really hard on his own.”
Eric Diaz agreed.
“I think it’s definitely helped my drive because I’m my dad’s son, so everybody expects me to do well and then there are those who told me I was not good enough to go to Georgia,” he said. “The accomplishments and goals I set for myself prove that even though people told me that I couldn’t do it, that I can.”
Manny Diaz had just about seen and done it all in the world of college tennis by the time the 2010-11 season came around.
But the one thing that none of his years of experience had prepared him for was how he would handle coaching his own son at the very place that Manny Diaz had grown into his own some years ago.
There was no guidebook with answers, but there were sure a lot of questions.
“I was pretty apprehensive about how the whole thing would go,” he admitted. “It was something I had never been through and I knew that, during the recruiting period, he had gotten a lot of flack about coming to Georgia. I was apprehensive about how all of the guys would react. I wanted to make sure that he was going to earn his own stripes.
“I had always tended to be maybe a little bit tougher on him than I was on anybody else. I had to make a big effort to be fair and, at the same time, not to be too harsh or critical. It was very important to me to give him his own space in college.”
Manny Diaz devised a plan by which, on the court, he would treat his son no different than any other team member, with one exception. He delegated many of his son’s one-on-one sessions to associate head coach Will Glenn, himself an Athens native and former Georgia letterwinner.
“They’re able to do it,” said Suzanne Diaz. “Manuel takes a little bit off of his one-on-ones with Eric and lets Will do that because it’s such a weird dynamic to be coaching his son on the same team. He has to treat him as he does the other players. There’s no special treatment going on at all. Eric knows that it’s probably going to be harder for him than the others and he’s willing to do that.”
For Eric Diaz, who once fought his father’s advice as a teenager, he now relishes the opportunity to play for his father.
“I think he’s incredibly fair,” he said. “He does a good job of separating the father-son and coach-player relationships. He treats me exactly the same.”
And because of that, Eric Diaz is starting to come into his own as a collegiate player, winning a pair of qualifying matches this fall at the ITA Southeast Regional and advancing to the round of 32. He posted a 9-9 record during the fall.
His only goal is steady improvement.
“I just want to move into the starting lineup and be a solid position, and win as many matches as I can,” Eric Diaz said.
That approach has garnered the younger Diaz the respect of his peers and, of course, the man who is always, most importantly, Dad.
“I think he’s done great from the get-go,” Manny Diaz said. “Eric is obviously just like everybody else. He is a very unique individual with very strong opinions. The great thing about him is that he’s able to laugh at himself and he is very team oriented. He has earned everybody’s confidence and respect.”