Dec. 2, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
What happens when a title is on the line and you look across the court to see your opponent is one of your best friends on your own team? That was the dilemma when South Carolina men’s tennis teammates Harrison O’Keefe and Gabriel Friedrich squared off against each other at the USTA Clay Court Invitational in Orlando, Florida, on November 8. Friedrich held off his roommate to take the title with a thrilling 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 victory, and it took some prodding from coach Josh Goffi to ensure the Gamecocks played it like any other match.
“It’s a tricky situation playing your roommate and your doubles partner for a championship and to have it on national TV on ESPN3,” Goffi said. “What happens is your nerves get going and you start to care about how it looks because it’s on TV. Harrison started out a little tight, and they didn’t want to offend each other with grunting or yelling ‘come on’ after a point. They were being very cordial in a sense and weren’t really getting into the match. We always say you have to get your butterflies in formation. If you have butterflies in your stomach before a match, that’s a good thing because that means you care and you’re ready. The whole goal is to get them to fly into formation for you and then nobody can stop you.”
“It was a little awkward at first,” O’Keefe said. “Goffi called it ‘dancing around the match.’ We both weren’t getting in each other’s faces at all. He actually came down when it was 5-2 in the first set, and pulled us together. He told us we had to separate the emotions and play this tennis match like you both want it. At first I didn’t want to get fired up and say something that would get him (Friedrich) upset. We needed to show that we were there for a purpose.”
Goffi initially planned on observing from the stands, but during that visit, he brought both players together to get them going in the right direction. The visit could have made the two feel like they were being called into the principal’s office, but they responded well.
“Maybe he was thinking that because I was winning at the time,” Friedrich laughed.
“I didn’t think I was in trouble,” O’Keefe said. “I thought it was great that he came down because both of our levels jumped right after that.”
“It wasn’t anything about strategy,” Goffi said. “I just wanted to get them more engaged in the match. The level of tennis jumped really quickly after that, and it became an extremely high level match. I wanted these guys to get to that part in the match where pressure loaded in on both sides. We’re looking for that in every match because that’s where guys get better. That was a great learning experience for two players who are starting to come into their own. I was praying for a three-set match because I knew if we got into a certain level, it would be a dogfight until to the end. That’s exactly what happened, so I couldn’t have been happier."
I was a little emotional after the match and cried a little bit because I’ve been through a lot in the last year or so.
O’Keefe is a redshirt sophomore from Salem, Virginia, who was having an excellent freshman season when an injury sidelined him in mid-March. Friedrich is a redshirt sophomore from Port Alegre, Brazil, who has also had to overcome some adversity in his career. He originally came to South Carolina a year ago, but after some problems arose with his Visa, he had to go back to Brazil for five months and wasn’t sure if he would get back.
“I was really happy about the win,” Friedrich said. “I was a little emotional after the match and cried a little bit because I’ve been through a lot in the last year or so. When I decided to come here, I was so excited. Then when I had to go back home, I thought I had lost my opportunity. Then I came back and in the first week of practice I hurt my knee and had to have surgery.”
O’Keefe and fellow teammate/roommate Thomas Mayronne made sure that Friedrich knew he was still very much wanted when Friedrich had to return home last year.
“We Facebook messaged him,” O’Keefe said. “We told him we wanted him to be our third roommate, and it worked out so we were happy.”
Although they’re from different countries, there is not any sort of “Odd Couple” relationship, and Friedrich is adjusting nicely to life in South Carolina.
“We’re both kind of the same,” O’Keefe said. “We’re both pretty messy. Then we’ll have one day where we pick it all up.”
“When I came here, I didn’t know anything about college football,” Friedrich said. “I couldn’t understand how you could like an amateur team more than a professional team. As soon as I got here, I went to my first football game, and then I thought ‘wow, this is amazing.’ That is a lot of fun. The other guys have been great. They always help me.”
While O’Keefe and Friedrich may have had some initial reservations about playing each other for a tournament championship, they have no problem in showing passion and getting their blood boiling off the court in competitions such as video games.
“Absolutely,” O’Keefe said. “There are definitely controllers thrown during video games. When we’re doing that, we will always trash talk and have a rematch right after we’re done with a game.”
“There’s not a lot of competition in video games because I’m a lot better than him,” Friedrich laughed. “He beat me once in the NBA game, and I’ve never seen him so happy in my life. I had to throw the controller. I was not very happy.”
“He does have me in a lot of games, except for football,” O’Keefe added. “Basketball or FIFA World Cup (soccer), it’s not even close.”
O’Keefe and Friedrich agree that playing against each other for a championship will help make them better players. Now that they’ve had that experience, they’re up for a rematch at any time, and this time, there might be some trash talking.
“I’m ready right now because I’m healthy,” O’Keefe laughed. “He hurt his knee a little bit, so I’m ready right now. I might cut his strings out before the match so obviously I would win.”
“When we play indoors, he would probably win,” Friedrich said. “When we go outside, it’s a different story.”
Until that day happens, Friedrich isn’t shy about reminding his roommate who brought home the big trophy.
“The match is still on ESPN3,” O’Keefe said. “It’s been on repeat at our place, and this guy just sits on the couch and watches it over and over. I still lose, every time.”
“I know when he comes back from class, so I have it set up to watch when he comes in,” Friedrich grinned. “I say, ‘oh I was just flipping channels and look what’s on again.’ ”
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