Okonkwo’s mental improvements paying off on court

Iowa tennis’ Oliver Okonkwo has worked hard to improve the mental side of his game, and it’s produced great results.


Megan Nagorzanski

Oliver Okonkwo serves during a men’s tennis match between Iowa and Cornell at the HTRC on Sunday, Mar. 8, 2020. Iowa defeated Cornell 4-3.

Chris Werner, Sports Reporter

Oliver Okonkwo has all the physical tools he needs to become an Iowa great on the tennis court.

The 6-foot-3 sophomore — who made the trip across the pond from Berkshire, England, last season — has shown great speed, reach, and power when playing both singles and doubles for the Hawkeyes this season.

His go-for-broke philosophy is part of what makes him a force in Black and Gold.

“If you’re not going to hit it hard, don’t hit it at all,” Okonkwo said.

In Okonkwo’s doubles match on March 6 against Louisville, he and partner Will Davies won in dominating fashion, 6-1. In the first game of the contest, he scored three straight aces, a double fault, and then a fourth ace to win the game.

“The guy’s got a huge serve, so you might as well use it,” head coach Ross Wilson said. “We don’t mind a couple double faults if he’s able to get free points and get aces off it.”

His improved mentality is what has aided him in his latest matches.

“One thing I’ve been really trying to work on is my mental [game], because that’s one thing that lets me down quite a lot,” Okonkwo said. “I am just trying to keep a clear head, and one thing that is really important for me is not to think, ‘We’re going to stay calm,’ but to think, ‘How am I going to win this next point, and how am I going to build it?’”

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Okonkwo has won each of his last three singles matches and three of his last four finished doubles matches with Davies.

On his singles streak, Okonkwo has had to play in a tiebreaker or a third and decisive set each time.

He came back from losing his first set on March 8, 6-2, to defeat Cornell’s Eero Vasa — who is a top 125 player nationally — in three sets.

Okonkwo beat William Gleason of Nebraska 6-4 and 7-6 on March 1, winning the tiebreaker in the second set by a 7-3 margin.

The Hawkeye sophomore won his match on March 6 in two sets over Sergio Hernandez when Iowa dueled with Louisville. Both sets required tiebreaking points.

“Ollie a year ago, maybe even Ollie a couple months ago, would’ve probably just been like ‘You know what, it’s fine. Lose this set and come back at it in the third set,’” Okonkwo said following the match against the Cardinals. “But I think I stuck at it. I was mentally solid, and I didn’t really panic, and I had confidence that I could win the tiebreaks.”

This season Okonkwo and Davies have a doubles record of 6-4 in finished matches and Okonkwo is 8-5 in singles competition this spring.

The next opportunity for Okonkwo to add to his streak is March 20 when the Hawkeyes battle Minnesota at the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Center in their second Big Ten match. Iowa previously downed Nebraska 5-2 in a match that served as both the Hawkeyes and the Cornhuskers’ conference-openers.

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