When Mario Rincon was growing up in the small town of Duitama, Columbia, he and all of his friends played soccer. That was the game. That was the sport.
Until the day that Mario’s father, channeling his inner Ray Kinsella from Field of Dreams, built a tennis court in the family’s backyard.
“It wasn’t a fancy court or anything, just some flat land with a tennis net. It worked,” Rincon said. “From there we played tennis all day long.”
But Rincon’s life didn’t play out like a typical sports movie. He never went on to become a tennis legend. Never fell to his knees in celebration after winning a major.
But he did have a modest professional career, cracking the top-200 in the mid 1990’s during his nine-year stint on the ATP World Tour.
According to the ATP’s website, Rincon won $132,921 worth of prize money in singles and doubles competition in his time as a pro. He played in all of the major tournaments, on the courts of the US Open, Wimbledon, French Open and Australian Open.
Most aspiring tennis players would sign up for that resume immediately, take the money, the memories and ride off into the sunset. But that wasn’t enough for Rincon.
“I played for the University of Kentucky a long time ago and I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to play professional tennis and then when I finished…I wanted to become a college coach,” said Rincon, who also played for his country as a member of the Columbian Davis Cup Team from 1989-1998.
“The whole concept of playing together as a team in college, the whole concept of enjoying a victory together, to me that was the ultimate experience.”
Rincon, who turns 45 later this month, is the head coach for the University of Miami men’s tennis team. He began coaching at Miami in 2004 and won ACC Coach of the Year honors in 2006. He has stayed in the game for this long because tennis is what he loves, and tennis is what he knows.
But when you talk to Rincon about the man who introduced him to the racket and ball back in Duitama all those years ago, he tenses up. So you press him on the subject.
“My Dad never let me know that he was happy about [my achievements]but I think he was really proud. He was always pushing and pushing and pushing and asking for more,” Rincon recalled hesitantly.
Sitting in his office at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center in Coral Gables, with pictures of his daughters Laura, Daniela and Gabriella proudly displayed on a filing cabinet above his desk, Rincon would rather talk about match strategy or one of the eight Hurricanes on his young Miami roster than his relationship with his father, Victor Mario.
“His father was so demanding,” said Laura Rincon, Mario’s wife. “If he lost it was the [end all]of everything.”
Nevertheless Rincon stresses that his father was a critical figure in his life and a positive one who got him to this point in his career.
“As a 16, 17 year old kid, when you have to play and practice so many hours there are more things that you would enjoy doing then playing tennis,” Rincon said. “To play at a high level I think somebody else needs to push you and my dad was that figure for me. But I liked it. I loved it. I was very competitive…I’m really glad that he was there for me.”
And then of course there is Rincon’s late mother Erneftina.
“She was just the most lovely person ever, in the world. She was always very supportive,” Rincon said. “Of course my Dad was more results oriented, my Mom was more feelings oriented. That’s a side that I always appreciated and I think it was a great mix.”
It’s no surprise that this balance of discipline and nurture comes out in Rincon’s coaching style.
During a recent home meet against the University of Central Florida, Rincon could be seen slowly pacing the center aisle that sits between the first and second groupings of courts. Arms crossed, he peers through his dark sunglasses with an unreadable stare, overseeing every one of the six singles matches taking place simultaneously.
Somehow Rincon keeps tabs of every point, no matter the court. It’s this isle that offers him the best vantage point for a meet and serves as a nerve center of sorts, a place where he can feel the pulse of his team.
“In college tennis it is very different [than professional tennis], when in singles you have six matches going on and the different matches have different momentums,” said Rincon, whose ‘Canes would end up beating UCF 5-2. “Sometimes the whole momentum swings as a team and that’s a very interesting aspect of it. For us coaches to try to catch that wave, that momentum going our way…that’s what we want.”
Rincon could write a dissertation on the unique aspects of college tennis, and the challenges of coming up with a strategy to win a meet. He enjoys trying to out-think his opponent, and doesn’t have a problem telling you he’s good at it.
But there are the other responsibilities that come with being a college coach, the ones that a tennis court can’t prepare you for; the skills and lessons that Rincon took from his mother.
“You’re an important figure in the their lives when they’re away from home, trying to get their degree and become better tennis players,” Rincon said. “It’s a huge responsibility to be their coach, and I take that very seriously and I love it.”
Gabriel Flores, UM’s first team singles player, sites Rincon as the reason he chose Miami over many other Division-I programs.
“I cannot handle coaches who I don’t have a relationship with off the court,” Flores said of committing to UM in 2010. “I felt that impact with Mario, about how good he would be for me. It has been the best decision I have ever made.”
Flores says that Rincon handles the balance between friend and coach seamlessly, picking and choosing when to play which card at appropriate times.
“When it comes down to practice he’s pretty strict, you have to be on time and he does stuff with high intensity, but the good thing is he also lets you be,” Flores said. “He doesn’t pressure you…he tries to bring the positive out of you and helps you improve.”
Flores also has no problem poking fun at the competitive side of his coach. The sophomore laughs while talking about the times when Rincon has had to step in during practice for one reason or another and scrimmage a player.
“He won’t let you win, and when he loses he gets pissed off,” Flores said.
Don’t think for a second that this competitive edge doesn’t rub off on his players. Just watch any match the Flores, or second team singles player Omar Aly competes in. They are not shy to fist pump when they win a point, a set or a match.
And it all starts with the man tucked away in the middle of San Amaro Drive, on the south side of the University of Miami’s campus. A coach who has been at The U longer than most. From the court in his backyard to the center isle at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center, Rincon seems in his right place.