A blur of fluorescent green sneakers slides around the court, as the body that fills the shoes uncorks. “Dale!” screams Diego Soto, filling the air with passion after his forehand falls triumphantly for a winner.
This sequence is pretty common on the courts at Miami’s Neil Schiff Tennis Center. In fact, it seems to happen every time Soto snatches up another game.
The less common element of the junior’s arsenal: his intensity.
“Warrior” is a word that comes up frequently when teammates, coaches and fans describe Soto’s resilient play. It’s a fitting description for a player whose movement is constant, and whose opponents can never seem to keep a ball out of his reach.
“He’s not a guy that you like playing against,” said Wilfredo Gonzalez, a sophomore for the Hurricanes. “He runs and hits back every single ball, no matter how good the shot is.”
Soto put his persistence on display against North Florida earlier this season.
In a match with Moritz Buerchner, No. 96 in the nation, Soto barely returned a deep ball just inside the baseline. Buerchner then rushed the net and hit a delicate drop shot. Soto charged forward more than 50 feet and still was able to secure the point.
This season he has made the leap from Miami’s fifth singles player to the first spot. The move makes him the leader of the team, and Soto is off to an 8-5 start.
“Playing in the first slot is completely different from last year,” he said. “The challenge is greater. You feel like there’s more pressure on you because the team needs you to win.”
Soto, who grew up in Madrid, models his game after Spain’s tennis idols. He perfected his slide on the popular clay courts, and he immersed himself in the play of Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer to learn how to attack.
“I always looked up at the top players to help my game, and those two are Spanish so I always got to watch them,” Soto said. “Nadal plays a similar type of game as me, and everyone compares my backhand to Ferrer’s.”
Soto also sticks to a laundry list of ritualistic tasks during each match. For example, his first step on the court is with his right foot and he always touches his taped wrists between points.
“At first, it was just something that I thought would be lucky,” Soto said. “But then you do it every day, and you feel comfortable with it. You feel like you’re going to win if you do this.”
Miami’s ACC gauntlet has already kicked off, and the Canes will face some of the country’s top teams within their own conference. The team finished 1-9 last season in the ACC, and has lost to No. 25 Clemson and No. 16 Florida State in recent weeks.
Soto, however, is hopeful that he can power Miami over the likes of Boston College and North Carolina before the ACC Tournament kicks off April 25.
“We know we’re at the bottom this year,” he said. “But I think we’re ready to do it, and we’re definitely excited about it.”
Mini March Madness
While the men’s team tries to climb into ACC contention, the UM women are on an impressive streak.
Ranked ninth in the country by the ITA, Miami completed two shutout victories this past week. Saturday’s 7-0 win over Wake Forest means the Canes have executed an undefeated March.
Stephanie Wagner led the way with a 6-1, 6-4 victory in the top singles spot.
“This last segment of matches … we have been doing really well as a team,” coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews said. “The girls did a good job and stepped up.”
Next for Miami is a matchup with Maryland in College Park, Md., at noon on Friday.