Feb. 23, 2012
By Daniel Roth
SEATTLE - Earlier this month, in a match that he ultimately lost against Michigan's Barrett Franks in a third set super tiebreaker, UW sophomore Max Manthou put on an impressive performance that for him was not at all unusual. Long after all of his teammates had finished their singles matches and the Huskies had taken a 6-0 lead, Manthou was still hard at work. It didn't matter that the team's victory had been clinched easily a half hour earlier, he had no intention of lying down and letting his opponent off the hook.
"If anyone wants to beat me they're going to have to play for hopefully more than two hours, which is great. I love that," said Manthou about his gritty playing style. "I want to be that fly in the face that you can't really swat. I would take a four hour loss if it really made the guy go the distance. If he earned it, more power to him."
Manthou takes pride in his toughness on the court, always trying to be a thorn in the side of his opponent. And he's learned that's what he has to do if he wants to succeed at this level, unlike in the past.
In high school, Manthou was utterly dominant. He lost one set during his career at Kentwood High School in Tacoma and he was the first four-time 4A State Champion in Washington history. During his high school career, he got used to simply being better than everyone else, but his days of being the main attraction are now behind him.
"I don't think many people get that chance to feel like they're LeBron James in their sport," Manthou recalled fondly about his time as a high school superstar. "A lot of people knew who I was, so I had a lot of publicity. It was fun."
But now, as a collegiate tennis player in the Pac-12 he faces bigger, stronger and more talented competition than he ever has before. And compared to other college players, at first glance Manthou has an obvious disadvantage: his size. Tennis is a sport that values size and power, with the ideal height of a player being six feet or above. Taller players have longer wingspans which allow them to strike the ball with greater power, from sharper angles, and reach more balls. Listed at five feet eight inches tall, Manthou is the shortest member of the Washington team, standing an average of four inches shorter than his teammates.
Manthou has had to adjust to the taller and more talented competition than he faced previously and he knows that in order to succeed at this level he has to rely on his toughness and guile rather than physical superiority.
In a game traditionally predicated on power and quickness, his strategy is simple: "If you can't out-hit them, you've got to out-smart them and you've got to out-work them."
With his mind constantly picking apart his opponent's weaknesses and planning his next moves as if it were a game of chess, he is able to wear down his opponents.
"I try to mix in a whole spectrum of shots to throw them off their rhythm," says Manthou. "I'll give you a really low one then a really high one, and then try to get a fast one in there. I'm trying to do whatever I can to get under your skin."
This mind-over-matter approach to tennis that he's come to utilize in his time at UW isn't a new concept for him. In fact, Manthou can trace its origin to his days of playing basketball in high school. Basketball, even more than tennis, defines its players by their size. Where you play on the basketball court and what your role is on the team is decided almost exclusively by height, so Manthou is used to being overlooked because of his stature.
But that apparent disadvantage didn't stop him from excelling on the hardwood and helping his team to the State Championship his senior year as team captain. Granted, his job as a team leader was made significantly easier because of the monstrous presence of Josh Smith, who is listed at six feet ten inches tall, over 300 pounds and now plays basketball for UCLA. While Smith provided the highlights and received much of the attention for their success on the basketball court, Manthou was there in the background, doing whatever he could to help his team win despite his size.
His combination of toughness and size has earned Manthou the playful nickname of "little big man". He's accepted this nickname because he feels that it encapsulates what he tries to do in tennis as well as basketball: confidently embrace the underdog role and win.
Similarly, his path to playing collegiate tennis is also slightly unusual for top players. Many of the nation's top young tennis players, especially in the state of Washington don't compete at the high school level, instead focusing on USTA competitions. But Manthou was more interested in the camaraderie of being part of a team than just trying to further his individual career.
"If you want to be on TV you probably have to move away when you're really young and abandon what your life could have been for that shot at being top-something in the world," said Manthou regarding the USTA route. "But when you're on a team and there are people pulling for you, it's just a different dynamic."
His choice to compete with a team and be part of something bigger than himself speaks to his love of the game. It's not just about recognition and personal glory for Manthou.
"I played high school because it was fun. Being on a team with a bunch of other guys who were all fun to be around was just a great experience."
In order to play the game the way he plays it, you have to love the game. You have to enjoy putting in the effort in order to consistently out-work your opponent, even when he has six inches on you. Like in basketball, it is often the little, tough guy whose hustle and determination spark a team. And clearly the consistently tough play and self-confidence that Manthou brings to the team have been a big part of Washington's strong 6-2 start to this season.
Manthou himself has gone 6-1 in dual play in singles, losing just that one marathon to Michigan's Franks. He has come a long way from his freshman year, when he made just five singles starts, going 3-2.
Last year, Manthou was generally the seventh man on a six man rotation. This sudden shift from being the larger-than-life high school star to being a back-up on a team dominated by upperclassmen was a difficult adjustment.
"I sort of created weaknesses that I didn't have before, mentally. My whole career I've been really strong mentally, but last year I hit a low point," says Manthou about his confidence level during last season.
But as the season progressed and he got more chances to play he decided to make the most out of his opportunities. Manthou has since shown that his high school success wasn't a fluke; he has what it takes to compete at the collegiate level. He was even named Gohuskies.com Student Athlete of the Week on January 23 of this year for his 4-0 record in singles and doubles matches against Idaho and Pacific, part of two consecutive 7-0 sweeps for the Huskies.
Manthou thinks that he and the rest of the Huskies can continue to excel this year despite the big turnover the team has gone through since last season.
"I think our practices are productive, maybe more so than last year. I feel like we can definitely make a splash and get into the top-20 this year," says Manthou about the success and potential of this year's team.
On paper it doesn't seem like Manthou should be a successful tennis player at this level. He's too small and he didn't take the normal route that top local players usually take. But as the saying goes, there's a reason they don't play the game on paper. Max Manthou's style of play is all about proving people wrong with his toughness, strategy and confidence in himself. He's even confident when he doesn't win. When asked about the match against Michigan's Barrett Franks (who is Michigan's tallest player at 6'4") that he lost in a super tiebreaker, Manthou calmly replied, "If it went to a full third set, I would've beaten him."