The Path Less Traveled
Feb. 20, 2008
by Jeff Smith
It is fairly uncommon to see the world's best tennis players attend college. Michael Chang turned professional when he was 15 years old, while Pete Sampras elected to go pro at age 16 following his junior year of high school. Andre Agassi also became a professional at 16 and Andy Roddick waited two more years before making the jump. Todd Martin, however, elected to go a different route, and by doing so, he in turn left a legacy at Northwestern.
For most of his professional career, Martin was the highest-ranked ATP player to have ever attended college and played collegiate tennis, although that distinction does not sit right with the former Wildcat. Born in Hinsdale, Ill., Martin spent most of his life growing up in East Lansing, Mich., in a family where as Martin said, education was key. He always looked at leaving school or dropping out as being a bit of a stigma, so it is understanding, to a degree, that Martin feels he did not get the most he could of gotten out of college.
What is apparent is how in just the two years before Martin turned pro, Northwestern seemed to get the most out of him.
There is irony there with Northwestern's strong academic reputation. But after two successful years on campus, perhaps former Wildcat coach Paul Torricelli, who mentored Martin, provided the best explanation.
"The great ones know where they belong."
Torricelli takes pride in the fact he was even able to lure Martin from Spartan country to Evanston, but admits he had a little help from a former Wildcat. Marco Wen, who was also an East Lansing resident and a 1986 All-Conference selection at NU, recommended to Torricelli that he begin recruiting Martin before others got to him. The Northwestern coach did just that and was able to create a rapport with Martin, who was also looking at Michigan, Rice and TCU. It also helped that Torricelli was coaching a USTA Midwest regional squad for which Martin played. As it turned out, the time the two had spent together prior to the actual recruiting process was a selling point for Martin.
"I got to know Paul a little bit before all of that and that was very valuable for me," Martin said. "I got to know him personally which is what was the most important thing for me in the recruiting process. Can we co-exist? Do I trust him? Do my parents trust him? Paul for a lack of a better way to say it, past that test."
Martin signed on to become a Wildcat in the spring of 1988 and quickly found success as a freshman in 1989. He recorded a 28-6 record en route to being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. But Martin did not assume the role of team leader so quickly. The talented product was also playing alongside All-American Steve Herdoiza on a squad, which Torricelli says was a "team of leaders."
Following the 1989 season, Torricelli sat down with his two accomplished standouts and told both players that what they did over the summer would determine who played No. 1 singles the following year. Martin won that battle as he returned with a body of work that convinced Torricelli that not only was Martin going to be the Wildcats' top play that season, but he might not be around much longer.
"Looking back, Todd knew where he was heading intuitively," said Torricelli. "If you would have asked him about his thoughts about playing professionally, he would have told you he didn't know, but I think it was a gut feeling for him."
To facilitate that feeling, Torricelli steered clear of Martin during the 1990 campaign, leaving his sophomore on the court by himself to learn to be self-reliant and coach himself.
"It was the way he wanted it," Torricelli said. "I was aware of that and let him run with it. It helped him prepare for the pros because he instinctively knew where he was headed."
But there was business to be done first. Martin and the Wildcats had their eyes set on capturing the school's first Big Ten Championship in any men's sport in 25 years. On the heels of Martin's 51-3 record, which earned him the 1990 Big Ten Player of the Year award, Northwestern captured the conference title and recorded its first NCAA Tournament bid in school history.
To this day, it is a season and a moment that Martin will never forget.
"That was an experience I'm not sure I ever felt the same way," he said. "We were just a group of guys that did it together and we all contributed in different ways. Had we won the year before, I'm not sure it would have meant as much because we did not have any seniors on the team. But the 1990 team had three seniors who were probably not going to play professionally."
Martin knew how special it was for those seniors and he too had every intention of fulfilling his four years in Evanston. Following his sophomore season, Torricelli and Martin had talked about him coming back for his junior year. However that summer Martin was offered a wildcard selection to compete at the RCA Championships in Indianapolis and wound up losing two close sets (6-7 4-6) to Agassi.
After the RCA Championships, Torricelli remembers walking out to get his newspaper and seeing that Martin had won a tournament that was a prelude to the U.S. Open. Torricelli walked in and told his wife that he was convinced he would receive "the call" from Martin that day. And he did.
Despite the fact that Martin's parents and his lifelong coaches urged him to stay in school, Martin opted to turn professional and embark on what would be an amazing tennis career.
In just a matter of four years, Martin found himself in the finals of the 1994 Australian Open, where he lost in straight sets to world No. 1 Pete Sampras 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. He squared off against Sampras again at Wimbledon in the semifinals, losing to the eventual champion. He reached a third Grand Slam semifinal that season at the U.S. Open, dropping a match to Agassi, who went on to win the event.
Martin also represented the United States in Davis Cup play for nine years, helping his country to the title in 1995. The team defeated Russia on its home court in Moscow to win the Cup - a moment both Martin and Torricelli will never forget.
In 1996, Martin had an opportunity to face close friend and former Michigan standout MalaVai Washington in the semifinals of Wimbledon. After holding a 5-1 lead in the final set and serving for the match twice, Martin dropped the fifth set 10-8 in what would be the most meaningful match of his career.
"You learn a great deal from your failures and it's a nasty thing and a difficult challenge to accept or even embrace your failures, but you have to if you are a competitor," Martin said. "Out of all the things in my career, I am most proud that my best tennis came after my most horrifying disappointment."
Martin rebounded to reach a career-high ranking of No. 4 and was again a Grand Slam finalist at the 1999 U.S. Open. En route to a hard fought five-set (4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 2-6) championship loss to Agassi, Martin impressed the tennis community with a valiant effort in a fourth-round win (5-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4) over Greg Rusedski. As his opponent served for the match in the third set, Martin rallied to win the final three sets despite playing with a heavily bandaged leg and dealing with dehydration, which forced him to take on fluids from an IV following his third-round victory.
"That was one of the most gratifying and uplifting experiences of my career and fortunately it was followed by three very good matches, including the final of the Open," he said.
Martin retired from the ATP in 2003 with eight singles wins and five doubles titles, however he still competes in six events each season on the Outback Champions Series. Married with two children in Jacksonville, Fla., Martin remains in close contact still with Torricelli, who ended his 24-year coaching career at Northwestern last season.
In May of 2007, Torricelli helped induct Martin into the ITA Men's Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame. The star pupil returned the favor by joining close to 140 former Wildcat tennis players on Feb. 2 in honoring Torricelli's retirement from coaching.
Despite having Martin for only two years, Torricelli remains thankful to the day he had the opportunity to witness the blossoming of a wonderful career.
"Todd was a natural and he has continued to stay close to college tennis and very loyal to Northwestern," he said. "He is without question, one of the most respected individuals in tennis today."
Martin admits that he was "1,000 percent unprepared" to play professional tennis before college unlike some of his David Cup peers, but notes there are no regrets for taking the path less traveled and attending school at Northwestern.
He just wishes he would have stuck around a little longer.
Maybe Torricelli was right.
"The great ones know where they belong."