By John Frierson

UGA Staff Writer

The history of Georgia men’s tennis is in many ways the history of two extraordinary men: Dan Magill and Manuel Diaz. For almost 70 years, since 1955, they are the only coaches the program has had. And they are two of the best to ever coach anything at any level.

Diaz arrived in Athens from Puerto Rico in the fall of 1971, to play for Magill and the Bulldogs. He later became a two-time All-American, later still became Magill’s invaluable assistant coach on the Bulldogs’ first two NCAA championship teams, in 1985 and ’87, and then took on the monumental task of taking over for the legendary Magill after the 1988 season. And he somehow took the program even higher, winning four NCAA team titles, two ITA National Indoor championships and way more SEC titles (29) than you’ve got fingers and toes.

On Thursday, Diaz announced that this, his 36th season leading the Bulldogs as head coach and 46th season with Georgia tennis overall, will be his last. We all knew this day was coming eventually, but it’s also hard to imagine one of the greatest programs in college tennis and Georgia athletics history without him.

“I think he took it as an honor to be named by Magill as the program’s next coach, and it’s been a wonderful, wonderful career for him. He deserves every minute of glory that he’s had,” Ricky Diaz, Manuel’s younger brother, who was a freshman on the team in 1975 when Manny was a senior, said this week.

“Did we see (Manuel’s) great career coming? Well, yes. Did we think it was going to last this long? It doesn’t surprise me. He’s always been very passionate about what he does.”

Bobby Mariencheck (1991-94) was a three-time All-American at Georgia, and now his son, Parker, is a freshman on this year’s team. Mariencheck said part of what made playing tennis for Georgia and Diaz so special has nothing to do with anything on the court.

“Of course he’s absolutely brilliant at the Xs and Os and forehands and backhands, but, in my opinion, that’s not the reason he’s the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). In my estimation, it’s because of my personal experiences with him, and I know I share this (opinion) with a ton of the lettermen,” Mariencheck said Thursday. “The best decision I ever made, other than getting married and having kids, was to play tennis at Georgia. And since that time, I can’t remember an important decision in my life, whether it had anything to do with tennis or not, that I didn’t run by him first.”

When asked earlier this week, before the current players learned of the upcoming retirement, to give a few reasons why he likes playing for Diaz, junior Miguel Perez Peña said there were “a lot of good things” to say.

“I would say the pride that you play with. I think the way he coaches, the way he speaks to you and treats you as a player and a person, that’s something that, I’ve always been here at Georgia, but I think that would be very hard to find somewhere else,” Perez Peña said. “His wisdom and everything that he provides to you, it’s something that only he, one of the greatest coaches in college tennis, can probably have.”

Diaz, who for years shared an office with Magill inside the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame building, will certainly be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. As curator of the Hall of Fame, I don’t think I’m out of line in speculating that Diaz and one of his greatest players, John Isner, who recently retired after a great pro career, could be, fittingly, inducted together in 2026, the next time the NCAA Championships are held in Athens.

Isner, who arrived at Georgia as a very tall, skinny kid with loads of potential but maybe not the drive needed to be a star, blossomed under Diaz, winning an NCAA doubles title with Antonio Ruiz in 2005 and leading the Bulldogs to an undefeated season and the 2007 ITA Indoor and NCAA team titles as a senior. Isner then went on to reach as high as No. 8 in the ATP Tour rankings, winning 16 career titles and reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2018.

And Isner will tell you that none of that likely would have happened without Diaz.

“I would always listen when he spoke. He knew what he was talking about, he knew how to command a room, he was a leader of men — and he molded me into the person I am today and the player I became after college,” Isner said Thursday. “He instilled a great work ethic in me. Truthfully, I don’t really feel like I came into college with, I wasn’t the laziest person in the world, but I wasn’t the hardest worker either, and I left college the complete opposite of that.

“I was very diligent and hard-working and took a lot of pride in my craft. That’s in large part because of Manny, because he expected a lot out of us. And we loved playing for him.”

Already in the ITA Hall of Fame is one of Georgia’s and college tennis’ all-time greats, Al Parker, who is tied with Isner for the UGA career singles wins record with 138. From 1988-91, Parker was always one of the top players in the country, and he played No. 1 singles for Georgia his entire career. Parker was there for Magill’s final season and for the first three of Diaz’s tenure, twice reaching the finals of the NCAA team tourney.

“Manny was ready for the job, as he’s proven with his unbelievable record. He had a ton of credibility with all of the players because he’d been a great player himself and coached underneath Coach Magill for so long,” Parker said Thursday while in town for a UGA Foundation Board meeting. “I felt like it was about as easy a transition as you could possibly have.”

It’s one thing to come from another country and have a great playing career at Georgia. Lots of Bulldogs have done that, including 2024 Australian Open mixed doubles champion Jan Zielinksi, from Poland, who won a combined (singles and doubles) 227 matches at UGA from 2015-18 and was a two-time All-American. It’s something different when you come from far away and not only join the Georgia family, but then make Georgia part of your family.

Ricky Diaz said he didn’t really think of playing college tennis anywhere else, not when he’d seen how much playing for the Bulldogs and Magill meant to his older brother. And the chance to play with his brother for one year was too much to pass up, and turned out to be more special than he ever could have imagined.

“That was so, so nice,” Ricky said. “To watch him play, to watch him beat players like (Hall of Famers) John Whitlinger and John Sadri, the top players in the country, that was so rewarding to me.

“I’ve always been so, so proud of his accomplishments.”

But they weren’t the last Diaz boys to suit up for the Bulldogs. Two of Manuel and wife Suzanne’s sons, Eric (2012-15) and Alex (2017-21), who grew up about mile from the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, also played for Georgia.

Three years ago, on what would have been the late Magill’s 100th birthday, I wrote a story celebrating the man and his extraordinary life. Included in that piece was Diaz recounting the first time he met Magill, known for his interesting wardrobe, even by early 1970s standards. (Think lots of plaids and lots of pants with things like tennis rackets on them.) Diaz, a high school senior, and his father were visiting schools in the U.S., and met Magill at Georgia’s courts.

“He comes down from the corner of the bleachers there by court 1, and I look at his pants and I look at his hat, and I’m going, like, ‘I have never seen anything like this before,'” Diaz recalled in the story, published about a month before he tied Magill’s SEC record of 706 career wins. Diaz is now up to 771 wins and counting.

Imagine if those two hadn’t hit it off and gone on to form such a great partnership. Now, try to imagine Georgia tennis without Manuel Diaz for most of the past 50 years. It’s not possible.

“He’s a winner,” Parker said. “He’s a fiery competitor, but he also represents the program with a ton of class. … He’s been able to take the culture that Coach Magill built and build on it and enhance it even more.”

Life will go on just fine without Manny leading the way, but it sure won’t be the same.

Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.

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