A Big Adjustment
March 3, 2009
By Larry Watts
Christian Bierich has no visions of becoming his country's next Bjorn Borg. When the Landvetter, Sweden native graduates from the University of Iowa later this spring, he claims his days of playing tennis at a high level will "probably be over."
"I'm pretty realistic about it," he says. "I'll need to take some time off because tennis has been my life for so long. I'll probably miss it, but it's time to try something else.
"Other than coaching tennis when I took a year off between high school and college, I don't know what it feels like to work. It's not easy on the pro circuit when you're first starting out. I don't have the money to go out and play in those tournaments and I still have several student loans to pay off."
So Bierich is satisfied to concentrate on being the best he can be at the college level. Aside from a meager four matches during his freshman and sophomore years combined, the 23-year-old senior is adjusting to playing the No. 1 slot in the Hawkeyes' lineup for the first time.
But Bierich has already put a target on his back after winning the Big Ten Singles Championship last fall as the No. 4 seed. Winning six straight matches while dropping only one set, he became Iowa's first winner in the event since Tyler Cleveland in 2000. Bierich wound up posting a 14-1 record in fall play.
"I wasn't really surprised because I know I can play good," he says. "My problem is playing at the same level consistently. It's up to me to stay focused and play my game. If I play my game, I win."
Bierich is now adjusting to life at the top. He dropped two of his first three matches of the spring campaign but has since put together a four-match winning streak.
"Of course I feel the pressure because I don't want to let the team down," he says. "People come to see you play and they expect to see good tennis. My game isn't going to disappear, and as long as I stay focused and train hard, it will come. Everybody expects a little more from you when you get in this position and you don't want to let them down. But that's the way it is in all sports.
"In the years before, my game was so up and down. I would play some amazing matches and then play horrible. It's my senior year and I think I've figured everything out and know how to play good in all my matches. I just have to stay steady.
"The big difference this year is things are a little tougher," he adds. "It doesn't matter what team you are playing, every team has at least one good player. It's always going to be a tough match for me, but that's the way I like it. You play the best guy and you have to play your best tennis. It makes for an exciting senior year."
Ranked in the top 20 in his age group in Sweden, Bierich was faced with a decision when his high school playing days were over. If he wanted to further his education in his homeland, he would have to drop tennis or he could come to the United States, where he could keep playing tennis while getting an education.
"It really wasn't a tough decision since I wasn't ready to give up tennis," he says. "And I wanted to play the best."
Without making any recruiting trips, his toughest decision was where to play and who had scholarship money available. Fortunately, he had an older friend who had played at the University of Minnesota to give him some advice.
"I had never been to the U.S. before," he says. "But my friend told me the University of Iowa was a good school and had a very good program with a nice stadium. He knew the coach (Steve Houghton) here and said he was very honest and the people in the Midwest are very nice and helpful."
One thing Bierich did know was he couldn't play at a school in a warmer climate, especially one close to a beach.
"I knew I'd be spending too much time there (at the beach) and getting into too much trouble if I went to one of those schools," he says. "The weather in the Midwest was a lot closer to that of Sweden, although the changes in temperature from day to day are a little more drastic.
"But I was very confused when I first Googled for information on the area. I saw nothing but farmland and that's really not my style. Then I came across pictures of Iowa City and I really started to like the area. I decided to trust my friend's opinion."
Coming from a town of 6,000 people, Bierich said his anxiety was relieved when he discovered a population of 70,000 in Iowa City. "I was relieved because I went to high school and played my tennis in Gothenburg, which has a half-million people. And of all these people in Iowa City, there were probably 30,000 college students, so there were young people everywhere. I don't have a car here, but everything is so compact that the only time I need help getting anywhere is when I go to the tennis complex, which is about a 10-minute drive."
The biggest adjustment Bierich had to make was in the classroom. He knew very little English.
"I had taken a year off, so I was out of the (school) rhythm and I had to learn another language at the same time," he says. "Even in Sweden, I'm not very good with the Swedish language. Now I had to write papers and give speeches, knowing my rhetoric was bad,
"I remember having to write a one page, double-spaced paper and it took me four hours, and that's with horrible grammar and nothing making sense. I was embarrassed to talk to other people, but I knew I had to keep talking in order to learn. If you don't try, you're making it harder on yourself because you can't get your personality through."
And his grades suffered during his first two years. At one point in his sophomore year he was in danger of being ineligible. He switched to a health science major and has since rebounded, carrying over a 3.0 grade-point average the last two years.
Bierich says his greatest culture shock in coming to Iowa City was the variety of options (and quality) of food available.
"There's fast food everywhere," he says. "We have a Burger King and a Pizza Hut back home and we just had a Subway open up. Going to McDonald's was always a big deal for my family. I like to eat healthy and I prepare all my own food. If it's not done my way, it's a different world."
Hence, Bierich's goal is to become a personal trainer, concentrating most of his effort on athletes, especially tennis players.
"I want to work with people on the nutrition and mental sides of sports because that's what I think I am really good at," he says. "I'll probably go back to school in Sweden, but the education is free there and, if I live at home, it won't cost me hardly anything."
But he also knows making a total break from tennis will be impossible. He figures he'll play club tennis with some friends, where he can earn a little extra spending money.
"There's always some competitions in Germany," he says. "I'll be competing, but not on a high level."