The next in line to the legacy of strong singles play at Texas arrived as a virtual unknown. Now, the Big 12 and the rest of the country is getting to know Søren Hess-Olesen.
Hess-Olesen, a native of Aarhus, Denmark, has made a stride forward in his junior year. In seventh-ranked Texas’ 22 dual matches so far this season, Hess-Olesen has defeated 10 ranked opponents. Among those taken down by Hess-Olesen are current No. 9 Peter Kobelt (Ohio State), No. 34 Romain Bogaerts (Wake Forest) and No. 49 Nick Chappell. None of those compare to when Hess-Olesen clinched the Longhorns win against No. 2 Oklahoma by beating then-No. 2 Axel Alvarez-Llamas 6-4, 7-6(3) on March 28.
“He was starting to put together some really impressive wins and I think that one was a culmination of ‘Yeah, I’m ready for the moment and I’m going to be the aggressor and I’m going to win,” Texas head coach Michael Center said of Hess-Olesen’s win against Oklahoma. “He played like he expected to win in a tough situation against one of the better players in the nation.”
That win proved to Hess-Olesen that it wasn’t just him who could win against the best.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” Hess-Olesen said, “not only as an individual player but as a team. I felt that if we could beat Oklahoma, we could beat anyone in the country.”
For a program that was used to competing for national titles, it had been a long while since the Longhorns could feel that way. After reaching the NCAA team finals in 2010, Texas has not advanced past the Round of 32 and lost in the second round last year to Santa Clara.
There were signs of an impending revitalization at the end of last year. Hess-Olesen reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA singles tournament before losing to eventual champion Jarmere Jenkins of Virginia. He was also named an ITA All-American – the 30th Longhorn to ever receive that honor.This year is turning out to be a giant leap forward for the Longhorns. They went 2-1 in the ITA National Team Indoor Championship in February (their only loss was to eventual champion Ohio State in the second round) and would clinch the Big 12 regular-season title with a win on Wednesday against No. 6 Baylor.
A look at the Big 12 preseason standings would show Texas’ climb to be reaching its pinnacle a year early. Texas was picked to finish third behind Oklahoma and Baylor, and the Longhorns did not receive a first-place vote.
Instead, it’s been the past two years that have helped Hess-Olesen primed for his breakout. From the first dual match of his career, he has been playing at No. 1 singles, though it wasn’t without some hesitation from Center.
“You always concern yourself that someone can be beaten down or lose their confidence or get disappointed to the point where their game or their attitude begins to deteriorate,” Center said. “His never did. If he lost a match, he would come back the next day and want to work on his game. He kept using his disappointment as fuel for his fire to keep improving and now you see him two years later as a completely different player.”
Even at 22 years old, there’s still time for Hess-Olesen to continue to get better. Growing up in Denmark, he grew up playing soccer and didn’t start playing tennis until he was 10. He spent the next five years playing both before giving up soccer at 15 and turning all his attention to tennis.
Hess-Oleson was ranked as the No. 1 junior player in Denmark and won the country’s 18-and-under singles tournament and yet failed to generate much interest among U.S. colleges because of his limited exposure in high-level tournaments. Instead, Hess-Olesen reached out to a number of colleges and Texas was one of the first to show interest.
“Honestly, he didn’t have a great resume of matches and tournaments of some guys that we have recruited,” Center said. “He hadn’t traveled around too much and played many [International Tennis Federation junior tournaments]. He was going to school since he’s a very serious student. We started to call around and found out he’s a very good player and I jumped on a plane and flew to Denmark as soon as I could.”
Hess-Olesen had one condition for coaches who were recruiting him: he didn’t want to play with his twin brother, Ebsen.
“We both decided that we wouldn’t go to the same place,” Søren said. “We want to see not only what it would be like in terms of development as a tennis player but being at different places.”
That’s how Søren ended up at Texas while Esben now plays at North Carolina. The two teams have played each other in each of the past three seasons with the brothers only meeting in singles in last season’s matchup. Ebsen got the family bragging rights with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 win at No. 1 singles while Søren and the rest of the Longhorns came away with a 6-1 victory.
Søren said he would be fine with ending his college career 0-1 in singles against his brother.
“I would prefer not to play him individually when we play as a team,” Soren said. “It’s different too because I know his coaches a little bit and his coaches know me a little bit and some of my teammates know him. I always look forward to seeing him but it sucks so much to lose to your brother’s team.”
That feeling of losing has become rarer and rarer for Hess-Olesen and the rest of the Longhorns. He has turned his game into one of the best in the nation. Soon, it will be time for the Big 12 to catch up to him.