By John Holt Ole Miss Athletics Media Relations Graduate Assistant
Ole Miss freshman tennis standout, Nik Scholtz, never envisioned himself attending college.
Born and raised in Caledon, South Africa, Scholtz had never been grocery shopping, paid rent or practically even packed a suitcase prior to his arrival in Oxford.
“I just learned about life in general when I came here,” Scholtz said. “I learned to be independent. I had to begin doing things on my own.”
In his first season of competition with the Rebel men’s tennis team, Scholtz has guided Ole Miss (7-4, 3-1 SEC) to a No. 14 national ranking, while individually he currently ranks No. 12 in the latest Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) singles rankings.
When Scholtz was five years old, his father, Calla, (who was a professional rugby player) introduced him to the sport of tennis. Up until the age of 13, Scholtz loved every sport imaginable. As a kid, along with tennis he also participated in track, cricket and rugby.
“When you get older, you have to make a decision,” Scholtz said. “My dad told me that from the start. He said you can do everything now, but there’s going to be a time when you have to choose, and I was always better in tennis.”
Standing at 6-5, Scholtz uses his height as an advantage whenever he steps on court. He was average in height until he grew five inches in a span of six months at age 17 (Calla stands 6-4 and Scholtz’s grandfather is 6-5). Being tall allows Scholtz the ability to serve with finesse and power, as most of his serves average 130 mph.
“When you’re a tall, lanky guy, you’re always struggling with explosiveness and being quick,” Scholtz said. “I’ll never be as quick as a guy that’s 6-0 or 5-11. But they’ll never have a serve like me.”
An avid Marat Safin fan growing up, Scholtz excelled throughout the junior rankings and became the No. 1 ranked player in South Africa in the boys’ 18-under division.
As Scholtz continued developing into a promising young prospect, as many as 30-40 schools started to recruit him. While competing in the 2009 Junior Wimbledon, his parents met Rebel assistant coach Toby Hansson. After an encouraging conversation with Hansson, Rebels head coach Billy Chadwick traveled to the US Open that August, and embraced Scholtz’s parents.
“My parents told me coach was a great guy and they thought I should consider Ole Miss,” Scholtz recalled. “But I was not familiar with any schools in the U.S.”
Acknowledging that Scholtz was his top recruiting target that season, a big sigh of relief came from Chadwick when he received an email from Scholtz, informing him that Scholtz officially did indeed want to join the Rebel Nation.
“It’s great to see a person come in that is truly a wide-eyed kid,” Chadwick said. “He’s really just started maturing, and that’s one of the very beneficial things, no matter where you’re from, to get that college experience. It really helps you in all aspects of your life, in your particular sport.”
For Scholtz, the transition from South Africa to the United States and to the University of Mississippi wasn’t as difficult as he anticipated it would be. His school back in South Africa was an English school, so there wasn’t a language barrier. Caledon is a small town, as is Oxford. The hardest part of the transition was moving so far away from his family. Today he still only gets to travel home twice a year.
“There isn’t anything I don’t like about it,” Scholtz said of his collegiate experience thus far. “When I came here, people told me the South had the nicest people in the country and I see that. People are really nice here. People have been really good to me here.”
Senior teammate Marcel Thiemann added, “With (Nik), we don’t need to lead or show him because he knows what’s expected. Every single day in practice he’s going to work hard, and going to try and get better.”
However when Scholtz first arrived to Oxford in the fall of 2010, NCAA eligibility rules prevented him from participating in competition. He would redshirt the 2010-11 season.
“When I first came it wasn’t that bad because I was still practicing with the guys and still felt a part of the team,” Scholtz said. “But then when the season started, and I watched everyone playing in front of the crowd it was really tough. I only watched one match for like an hour, because I just couldn’t do it. It was too hard for me to watch and not be a part of it.”
The redshirt year forced Scholtz to channel his energy and focus toward improving his strength and conditioning.
Hoping to be cleared by the NCAA before the start of the 2011 fall season, Scholtz then suffered a stress fracture to his pelvis. Scholtz described the injury as the toughest he has ever endured, and it kept him away from tennis for six months.
“When I got the injury, I could barely walk out of bed,” he said. “It was hard for me to believe that I was ever going to play again.”
With plenty of rehab, dedication and faith, Scholtz recovered from the injury and around the same time, was announced eligible by the NCAA.
This spring he is playing No. 1 in the Rebels singles lineup. While there are currently only two freshmen playing No. 1 in the SEC, Scholtz is the first freshman to play No. 1 for Ole Miss since Alex Hartman in 2000.
“He’s extremely talented and he’s learning how to work hard,” Chadwick said. “It’s just part of maturing and part of recognizing, if I’m going to move to that next level and be successful, I’ve got to address these different areas and work hard on a day-to-day basis. We’re really seeing a lot of improvement with him.”
From the onset, Scholtz has performed brilliantly. He currently holds a 13-2 overall singles record and is 9-1 in dual matches at the No. 1 position.
“It’s so great to have him on the team,” Thiemann said. “He wins every match, and it’s so important to have your No. 1 player win every single time and carry confidence.”
Earlier this season, when the Rebels faced No. 3 Virginia, Scholtz defeated the Cavaliers’ Alex Domijan in straight sets 6-3, 6-4. Last season as a freshman, Domijan was ranked as high as No. 2 nationally in singles. Domijan also was an All-American and last year’s ITA National Freshman of the Year. Scholtz said he didn’t think he had a chance at victory before the match began, but lists the match today as his top moment thus far competing at the collegiate level.
“(Nik’s) one of the best freshman probably ever in college tennis,” Thiemann said.
Thriving off competition, whether it’s playing darts with his roommate, freshman basketball player Will Norman, or bass fishing with friends to determine who can catch the biggest fish, Scholtz’s attitude toward winning never changes.
“Most athletes are extremely competitive and that’s why we love to do what we do,” he said. “When you’re playing and you’re in a tight situation you love it. That’s what you play for. You want to be in that situation.”
This season, the Rebels are aiming to win their first SEC crown since 2009. The team also feels they are capable of hosting the NCAA 1st and 2nd rounds and finishing the season ranked in the top 10.
“I think that’s where Ole Miss tennis deserves to be,” Scholtz said.
Scholtz whose nickname is “Shark” (because South Africa is regarded for having lots of great white sharks) is also a superstitious athlete. You won’t ever see him perform in a match wearing a red shirt. He notes that when he was a kid, he lost a pair of matches wearing red and hasn’t worn the color on the day of a match ever since.
Yet despite achieving so much success in such a brief period of time, Scholtz has continued to be humble. Remaining modest after being rewarded with success is something the Scholtz family preached to Nik at a young age.
“My dad would always tell me, ‘lose yourself in something way bigger than you,”’ Scholtz said. “With the game of tennis, no one is bigger than the sport of tennis. So lose yourself in it, because you’ll be dead one day and it won’t matter how good you are, people will still be playing the game. I just try to live by that motto.”
From the moment Scholtz shifted his entire focus toward tennis his goal has been to play at the professional level. He labeled perseverance as the biggest element in determining whether or not his goal will one day be reached.
“I’ve always dreamed about being a professional athlete,” Scholtz said. “Obviously as a kid, you think its way easier than what it is. But the dream is still there. It’s definitely what I would like to do at some point in the future.”
Over the course of Chadwick's 30 years coaching at Ole Miss, he has had several players advance onto the professional ranks. Most recently, 2009 NCAA singles champion, Devin Britton.
“His potential is really unlimited,” Chadwick said of his current freshman sensation. “He’s got to improve in different areas and he’s making great strides in those improvements. One thing he was able to do when he first arrived was concentrate in the weight room. He’s much stronger, and he still has to get stronger. For him to really reach his potential he has to take very good care of his body and learn how to manage it because injuries in this day and time can end the best laid plans in a hurry.”
Scholtz admits he enjoys every aspect of tennis, but is most appreciative for what the sport has provided him.
“I really like all the places the game has brought me,” he said. “I’ve traveled all over the world. I just turned 21 and I’ve been in every continent and almost every country. I’ve met so many people, and it’s really opened a lot of doors for me. I’m pretty sure if I played any different sport, I’d still be in South Africa, which I love and is my favorite country, but I never would have left or met the people I know today.”
As the Rebels’ season continues this weekend with a pair of matches against South Carolina and No. 11 Florida, Scholtz attempts to carry forward a personal journey toward achieving his lifelong dream.
“He’s one of those elite players,” Chadwick said. “It’s going to be real interesting to see how he progresses, but he’s off to a great start.”
And regardless of whether or not Scholtz actually develops into a professional, he said he has no regrets on his decision to attend college and truly feels apart of the Ole Miss family.
“For him to accomplish as much as he has right now, it’s really a tribute to him,” Chadwick said. “I’m pleasantly surprised but not shocked by any means.”
“When I play, I try to play my best and if winning comes my way, it comes my way,” Scholtz said. “If it’s a loss then you can’t really control those things. All you can do is just try your best. I’m really happy with how well it’s going at the moment, and I’m just going to try and keep it up as long as I can.”
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