Life is good, on and off the court, for Ujkic

Chris Ujkic relishes a challenge.

Whether it is on the tennis court or in the classroom at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., Ujkic, a 2007 graduate of Mattituck High School, is flourishing these days.

Ujkic, 21, currently ranked No. 1 in the United States Tennis Association’s men’s open singles division in New York, competed this weekend in the Church Cup at the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md. He won his two singles matches in straight sets, and lost a doubles match with Dillon Pottash of Westhampton. Their Eastern New York team lost to the Mid-Atlantic team, 5-4, in the semifinals.

“We made a great showing,” Ujkic said. “I’m happy with the way we played. Unfortunately, our team fell short.”

Ujkic’s rise up the tennis ladder of success has been nothing short of amazing over the past couple of years. After going unbeaten in Northeast Conference play his freshman year and maintaining a grade-point average of 4.0 in business, Ujkic got a full scholarship to Division I Sacred Heart. Off the court, he had the opportunity to have dinner three times with Jack Welsh, GE’s legendary titan of industry, and he knew this college was right for him.

“Jack won me over,” Ujkic said. “He was incredibly nice. I have a great network of friends that I admire.”

While Ujkic didn’t come from a prestigious tennis academy, he impressed his coaches on the court, winning the inter-conference tournament twice. In his sophomore year in 2009, Ujkic led his team to the NEC championship as Sacred Heart upset Monmouth on its home court. With the match knotted at 3-3, Ujkic won the final match, 6-0, to give Sacred Heart the title.

This past season, Sacred Heart again reached the NEC final on May 9, and Ujkic again won his match. But Sacred Heart ultimately fell to Quinnipiac in a heart-breaking 4-3 loss. Ujkic was upset, but the next day he entered the Connecticut Spring Adult Challenger Circuit Tournament held at Sacred Heart. He knew he was playing well and he wanted to keep playing. Ujkic beat the No. 4-ranked player from UCLA, then defeated his own teammate, Kirill Kasynov, by 6-3, 6-1 in the final. Two weeks later, Ujkic won the New York Challenger Tournament at Randall’s Island. His top ranking by the USTA gave him an automatic bid onto the Church Cup team.

Ironically for someone obsessed with the sport, Ujkic didn’t pick up a tennis racket until he was 13. Ujkic said his father, Nick, was a pro soccer player and when Chris began to play youth soccer “it was heaven, but it was almost too easy.” Then, when he was 13, he broke his thumb in a Little League baseball game and couldn’t pitch. Ujkic said he ran into Mike Huey, the Mattituck High School boys tennis coach, who put a racket in his hands.

“The first time I played I lost to a senior on the team, but I got hooked,” Ujkic recalled. “It was like, how did I lose? It annoyed me. It drove me. It was like, this is difficult, this is competitive, and suddenly it all clicked. By the spring, I was the number one J.V. player. I made the varsity in eighth grade.”

Ujkic soon became the Tuckers’ No. 1 singles player.

When Ujkic helped his team win the NEC championship last year, he immediately called Huey.

“That call is one of the rewards of coaching,” Huey said. “You can’t put a pricetag on it.”

Huey talked about how Ujkic has always loved a challenge.

“Chris is a motivated person who wants to be the best he can be,” Huey said. “He is incredibly mature beyond his years. Chris has tremendous character. He has his head on straight. His fitness level is very high. When he walks on the court, one aspect that is not going to beat him is his fitness. He can go all day long.”

Another person who has had an impact on Ujkic is Dr. Gary Brenner. Ujkic said he has learned much from Brenner. He said he would drive from his college to Westhampton to have a tennis lesson with Brenner, and then drive right back to Sacred Heart.

“He turned me from an athlete with a racket into a champion,” Ujkic said. “He teaches you how to win.”

The first time Brenner worked with Ujkic, he told him, “You’re good, but you don’t know how to hit a forehand.”

“Chris called me in July after his freshman year in college and asked me if I could give him a lesson,” Brenner said. “I said, ‘Yeah, come over,’ and for 45 minutes we worked on his forehand. I got him to open his stance up and told him to stop banging the ball. The goal is to go with the ball and never miss. Chris is a great athlete, who learns so fast. I told him to now go play.”

Ujkic noticed the difference in his game right away.

“Chris asked me, ‘When can I come back?’ ” Brenner said. “He came back the next day. As the summer went on, I enhanced his serve and he had the season of his life. He keeps the ball going and lets the opponent make the mistake.”

Brenner called Ujkic “a tenacious competitor.”

“Chris has the athletic acumen and desire,” Brenner said. “He has learned to volley and his forehand is getting bigger. He is a great student who competes like there is no tomorrow. He is a phenomenal learner of techniques and mechanics. His ascent up the ladder has been so fast it is fascinating.”

Ujkic calls Jim Biggs, a volunteer assistant tennis coach at Sacred Heart and a former bank president, his best friend.

“I aspire to be like him,” Ujkic said. “We are so similar in so many ways. We became great friends. He has been unbelievable to work with.”

Biggs, who played on the pro tennis tour in the 1950s and ’60s, called Ujkic “a remarkable young man.”

“I’ve been a coach to Chris on the court and a mentor off the court,” Biggs said. “Chris’ tennis game has matured greatly. He has learned to think his way through a match and adjust his game to his opponent’s strength and weaknesses. He’s learned how to figure it out.”

Biggs called tennis a microcosm of life.

“It is a battle of wills and mental toughness,” he said. “Chris is a one-in-a-million kid. It is satisfying for me to watch him grow. He’s going to have a series of opportunities in the future. If he follows his business career path, all of what he’s done in tennis will do him a world of good because he has learned a lot about people.”

When asked about his future plans to go to law school, Ujkic says those plans are “not cast in stone, they are cast in rubber.”

“My peers think I should take a hiatus and go on the tennis tour,” Ujkic said. “My view is I like what I study. I am blessed to do what I do. I will use my down time to play in and win as many tournaments as I can. My plan right now is to go to law school, but who knows. We’ll see where it goes from here.”