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ETSU alumnus Gille up to No. 43 in world after Nadal match

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 17, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Over the past 11 years, Sander Gille has gone from the No. 4 singles tennis player at East Tennessee State University to the No. 43-ranked doubles player in the world.

The 28-year-old native of Belgium teamed with fellow countryman Jorge Vliegen to win three doubles events on the ATP Tour in 2019. They won ATP Tour 250 tournaments in Switzerland, Sweden and China.

Fast forward to last week and the Belgian pair went toe to toe with Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busto and Rafael Nadal, the world’s No. 1-ranked tennis player, losing 6-7 (7), 7-5, 10-7 in the ATP Cup in Australia.

It comes a decade after Gille was named the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year for ETSU. He posted an overall singles record of 78-45 over his four years playing for the Bucs.

As a professional, the 6-foot-1, right-handed player achieved a career-high ranking at No. 574 in singles before concentrating on doubles. Although he was getting prepared for the Australian Open, which started with Tuesday’s qualifying matches, Gille took the time for the following interview.

You've won three times on the ATP tour and are ranked in the top 50 doubles players in the world. What feeling of accomplishment is that?

Gille: “I’m very happy with my overall rise up the rankings and especially last year’s accomplishments. It’s a fantastic feeling to be able to reach these levels on tour as a reward for all the hard work we have put in over so many years.”

“It’s also very special to look back over the past few years seeing and realizing our improvement and that you have actually achieved that what you have always dreamed off. I feel privileged because very few players have the opportunity to play these big tournaments and experience these emotions.”

How did you feel after taking Nadal and Pablo Carreno Busto to the limits? Were you more proud of your effort or disappointed they were able to pull out the win?

Gille: “Last week’s participation at the ATP Cup in Sydney was a wonderful experience. We had a great time with the team and played some phenomenal tennis. Getting to play (Grigor) Dimitrov, who is one of the best players in the world, and then to get a shot at the actual No. 1 and absolute legend of the sport is unreal.

“At the moment itself you mainly focus on the match and what you have to do. But it does go through your mind that you are playing some extraordinary guys. For that reason there was an overwhelming feeling of disappointment after the lost match against Spain. We were inches near a victory against one of the best players ever ... it took much longer to get over than a ‘regular’ defeat.

“But the support and reactions we have received from family, friends, fans, and fellow players have been fantastic. Those reactions help a lot to put things in perspective and realize we have put up a remarkable fight. We will definitely learn a lot from this experience and hopefully we will get another shot at him or another world number one in the near future.”

What made you decide to concentrate on doubles? Do you prefer playing doubles to singles?

Gille: “My Belgian doubles partner, Joran Vliegen, and I decided to focus fully on doubles in 2017. We both combined singles and doubles for a few years before that, but it was very hard on the body to be playing two matches a day, day in day out. At the end of 2016, I was out for five months with an elbow injury and decided then to make the move over to doubles, which is less physical demanding than singles.

“The doubles circuit requires different skills and I am very happy we made the switch. I do miss playing singles but the things we have been able to accomplish on the doubles tour are far exceeding our expectations and matching our childhood dreams.”

What made you choose ETSU and what do you remember most about your time in Johnson City?

Gille: “I made an official visit to Johnson City before committing. I had couple of other offers, but from similar schools (size, location, tennis level, etc). I had a great feeling with the team in ETSU and enjoyed the warm and beautiful scenery around. I remember hiking to the waterfalls during our free weekends, for example. But mainly just having a great time with my teammates and friends throughout my entire college career — moments and memories I will never forget!”

How did playing for ETSU prepare you to become a professional player?

Gille: “It is a bit strange to have become a professional tennis player after graduating from ETSU as our school does not have the reputation of producing many professional tennis players. There are many college players getting ready for the tour, but nearly all of them come from the big SEC and Pac-12 schools.

“However, this proves that it is possible to do it differently. I never played much tennis before attending college and ETSU gave me the opportunity to grow, both as a player and a person. I was able to practice twice as much as I was used to at home, against a group of guys with great level. I moved up our team’s line-up and got to play the top spot, leading our team. This had a major impact in my development and would have never been possible if I went to a top-ranked school.

“Also the fact that we were able to win our conference all four years and make an appearance in the NCAA tournament (and win a round for only the second time in school history) has proven to be crucial in my recent success. At ETSU I was welcomed into a ‘family’ of winners.

“The team had been winning the years before me and we were eager to continue the tradition. I truly believe you can build a winner mentality and culture. Up until this day, I have been fortunate enough to have come out on the positive side of battle for the majority of times.”

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