Safe to say, the UC Riverside men’s tennis team has not been a model of success since the program’s inception roughly eight years ago, having yet to sniff a winning regular season. However, it is widely accepted in sports that the road toward development after multiple losing seasons is a lengthy one — one that is stretched even further when you are a newly established program at the Division I level. Considering this, UC Riverside tennis recently took a few significant steps along that path in November of 2015 by hiring head coach Mattias Johansson, whose list of accolades is perhaps just as long as the journey that lies ahead of him.
Upon his arrival, Johansson brought along a 540-283 overall record from his 19-year tenure as both the men’s and women’s coach at Vanguard University, four Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) Coach of the Year honors and eight total GSAC championship titles to name a few. And so, with the men’s tennis season just getting underway, we spoke to the man who is set with the task of turning the program around. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Now, you have had plenty of success elsewhere, how do you feel you can carry that over to UCR?
Well, I think you know, the structure (offers) different ingredients to be successful. I have had very good structure on my previous teams and I think finding the right player who is a good fit for the university is a key ingredient. At (Vanguard) I had a small pool at a smaller school and so it was easier to find those players. It will be a bit different here at UCR, getting those top players that I am looking for, but that will be my job to get them here.
And you were at Vanguard for 19 years, correct?
Correct, 19 years.
You were forced to leave because the Vanguard tennis program got shut down, what was that experience like for you?
In one way, you look back at it and it’s probably the best thing that could happen, you know? Because, you get comfortable and you get a routine and you don’t really think about where you can develop. So, when the program was shut down, it was kind of a wake-up call. Why it happened … I don’t really know, but obviously it was not my decision, it was the administration’s decision — probably for budget reasons or whatever it may be.
So considering this, what attracted you to UC Riverside?
Well, first of all it’s a Division I program. I had some offers somewhere else but that would have required a move and for the family it was not really the right time. Also, it is a UC school and a team that has not reached their potential in my opinion.
What makes you feel that they have yet to reach their potential?
So me coming in, I am a bit of a nerd with numbers and when you look at the stats on what has happened in the past, I think we can do a lot more. Sometimes, it can be a good thing coming in when a team has not been as successful as you think you can make them, so hopefully I have a chance to do that.
Do you have a time limit on when you’d like to get there?
I think with the team we have now, we can improve greatly from last season just by changing a few things and I hope that will be apparent after the season, but thing is, you also inherit a lot of players from the previous generation. So hopefully within one or two years I can put my spin on (this team) and see more of the level of players I want to bring in.
Now based on what I think is a European accent, I have to ask, where are you originally from?
Sweden … I used to say Boston but nobody believes me.
That was my second guess.
(laughs) Yeah, Sweden it is!
So, growing up there, what were some of your greatest experiences as a player?
As a player back in Sweden, I was lucky enough to play with lower professional players and in my generation they had a lot of good professional players that became successful, so I played against a lot of them growing up and later on as well.
What drew you to the U.S.?
For whatever reason, I always was drawn to the U.S. I wanted to play college tennis so I went to the East Coast to play for a couple years and then I got recruited to Vanguard and that’s where I played.
When did you decide to make the transition from player to coach? Was that something you always wanted to do?
I didn’t think so actually. To be honest, I had always been drawn to numbers and business. But right as I graduated, I was offered the head coaching job at Vanguard where they had been changing coaches for a couple of years. So the athletic director asked me, “Hey can you commit for three years?” And it ended up being a bit longer than that as you know.
How long did you continue to pursue business?
I actually owned my own business that I just sold last February, it was for waste combustion, something completely different. So I did that for 15 years. I was able to do that while at the same time I was coaching.
Well yeah, that would have been way different.
Yeah, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to continue coaching or go into business (after Vanguard). I was really 50-50. But the passion for being around young people keeps myself young and having opportunity at a D-1 program then going from there kind of took over.
Is that where you get your most enjoyment as a coach, teaching young players?
Yeah, it’s enjoyment. Especially being able to see how you can coach these young players not only on the court, but off the court where they look back in 10 years they say, “hey, coach actually said that.”
What are some philosophies that you try to instill within your players?
I think we have to stay in the moment and be humble, because tennis players can be self-centered a lot more so because you are one-on-one and it’s outsmart, outlast, outplay your opponent. So you need to have some kind of ego to do that, but the ego cannot carry over to be ignorance. I always tell players to be humble in victories as much as we are sportsmen during defeat and I think that is more of a life lesson too, you know?
Is that something you think you’ve been successful at thus far at UCR?
I mean, it may be too soon to say. I am starting to build a structure and implementing some ideas here and there. But you know (most players) have five or six months left before they graduate so hopefully I can reach through to them not only about the tennis but also about the life lessons.
With a new group expected to come in, I’m curious, how much scouting goes into the process for tennis?
Scouting is a lot about what kind of player you really want to commit to you and getting the money to certain players at certain levels. You need to (focus) on that a lot. The thing is though, local tennis players obviously want to go to USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, etc. and having a bit of limitations with out-of-state tuition here, it becomes hard to recruit outside of California.
How do you plan on dealing with that?
Overseas. That’s what I’ve been able to do is pull players from overseas and get a lot of top players that nobody else really knows about. But you know I’ve had to build up the connections and contacts over the years and my previous players know the level I look for so they recommend players as well.
End of the season, what would mark this as a successful year for men’s tennis?
I told the guys if you can be at least 30 percent better than you were last season in all aspects. Not just wins … but improving the game and the way you approach the game and the mental aspect of the game where you’re able to close out points where you maybe haven’t been able to do that in the past, that’s where you want to get 30 percent better. And hopefully that’s something I will take on to next year and get 30 percent better each year.
Quickly, do you have any favorites you enjoy watching professionally?
I’m more of a legend lover and I don’t want anybody to go away so, I am definitely more of a (Roger) Federer guy nowadays. I want him to get one or two more of the Slams and hopefully he’ll do that.