When Yhonny Murray was introduced to the game of tennis, he was an 8-year-old ball boy at a vacation resort in the Dominican Republic.
That was 1989. Fifteen years later, Murray’s days as a ball boy are long past. The senior co-captain is ready to lead a men’s tennis program that has its sights set on the Atlantic Ten championship when the spring season opens Feb. 5.
“This team wants to win the A-10s this year and it’s very much possible,” Murray said. “We came on strong last year and we’re basically the same team as last year. It’s for that reason I think we’ll be that much better in the spring.”
Murray’s road to Temple wasn’t a conventional one. Born in the Dominican Republic, Murray spent the first 11 years of his life on his family’s farm, neighboring a large resort. The resort’s owner asked Murray if he was interested in a ball boy position and he accepted. It was there he got his first taste of the game.
“The other kids and me were there all day long so we just thought we should learn to play,” Murray said. “We all picked it up as we went along. Watching other people play helped too.”
Last weekend at Virginia Tech University, Murray won three qualifying matches to advance to the round of 64 at the International Tennis Association’s (ITA) Northeast Regional tournament. In his first two matches of the six-day tournament, Murray was dominant, losing just five games and winning every set.
Following a victory in his third qualifying match, Murray was eliminated in the first round of competition by 17th ranked Josh Raff of Cornell. According to men’s tennis coach Bill Hoehne, Murray had a few factors going against him in his matchup with Raff.
“[Raff] was well-rested because he had byes up until his match with Yhonny,” Hoehne said. “[Raff] is one of the region’s best. [Raff] had a lot of first serve wins and one of Yhonny’s strengths is his ability to get the ball back. He just couldn’t get it back against [Raff.]”
Murray hurt his back doing exercises the week of the tournament, and played in pain for most of the competition. He said his back pain was an aggravation from a previous injury that stemmed from “the constant twisting involved with tennis.”
Although he hasn’t suffered as much in his last few seasons as an Owl, Murray said the injury is an issue that needs to be tended to.
“It got to a point where I was in so much pain that I didn’t think I was going to play [in the ITAs],” Murray said. “The trainers [at Virginia Tech] did as much as they could. I couldn’t sleep the night before my first match because of the pain.”
Back pain or not, Murray continues to produce. He leads the Owls in victories this fall with an 8-2 record, his best start at Temple. Last season, he was the only player to register an individual record above .500, posting a 9-8 mark.
Hoehne said his top player is starting to find a rhythm on both ends.
“Yhonny’s expertise is survival,” Hoehne said. “He doesn’t specialize in either singles or doubles.
“He brings a history of success to our program. He does everything to help the team as best he can.”
Because Murray learned the game from the sidelines, his style of play is unique. He is a “baseliner,” Hoehne said. He has the ability to stay back and protect the line but has exceptional speed that allows him to charge the net and play in on the ball
“Yes, he’s fast. Yes, he’s strong. But what makes him great is that he does all of this together,” Hoehne said. “You’d be amazed at how deceiving a player he can be. His opponents always say how surprised they are at his ability to track down shots not many other people can get.”
Enrolled at Temple under a student visa, Murray is nearing graduation with a degree in physical education.
“I want to go back to my high school and teach there,” he said. “I want to give back to them what they gave to me – an opportunity to learn.”
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.