When a men’s tennis match is on the line at UCSD’s Northview Courts, it’s not unusual to hear one voice rising above the others,
exhorting Coach Eric Steidlmayer’s 13th-ranked Tritons to raise their level of play. Whether on the court or sideline, the voice that resonates typically belongs to UCSD senior Erik Oijala. When he’s not encouraging his teammates, the 6-foot-4 blonde plays No. 4 singles and teams with sophomore Blake Meister at No. 1 doubles. As a junior, he was a key member of a UCSD team that reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II Championships and placed fifth overall. “Erik’s a real positive guy who brings a lot of energy to the team,” says Steidlmayer. “He’s a solid player who’s improved a lot since coming to UCSD. He broke his wrist twice in his first two years here and has overcome a lot to get where he is now.” With the home stretch of the 2006 season ready to commence, the economics major out of Irvine, CA spent time talking about his sport, his team and UCSD.
Q—Let’s start with the past. How did you get started in tennis?
OIJALA—Growing up as a kid, I was always hitting the ball with my dad. I also played hockey for about 10 years. Those were the two sports my dad played his whole life—still does—so I guess he passed those on to me.
About my sophomore year of high school, I figured I had a better chance of playing college tennis than hockey so I made the decision to concentrate on just one sport.
Q—So, who are your favorite players in each sport?
OIJALA—In tennis, I would say Stefan Edberg. He was an outstanding player and a classy guy. As far as hockey, it would be Kjell Samuelson. I always played defense in hockey and he was a 6-5, stay-at-home defenseman. I tried to mold myself after him.
Q—What motivates you to play tennis?
OIJALA—It’s just a release, ultimately. You can have all of this stuff in your mind, even horrible stuff. Then you can go out on the tennis court and sweep it all out and focus on something totally different.
Being in a team situation is also a lot of fun.
Q—What’s the most frustrating part of the game?
OIJALA—Losing to guys you know you could beat. I guess every loss is potentially that scenario. Very seldom do you just lose to someone who is just a better player.
Q—Singles and doubles—what’s the best and worst of each?
OIJALA—When I started at UCSD, I was just terrible at doubles. Finally, I’ve become a competent doubles player and it’s fun to have success at something you traditionally haven’t been very good at. I also enjoy the energy and the team part of it. It’s great to see your teammate having success and cheering him on. On the other side, there’s a lot more pressure in doubles—you’re teammate is relying on you.
In singles, I enjoy the individual aspect of it. It’s you vs. someone else and winning can be very satisfying. The opposite is the downside, I guess. When you’re failing, you know whose fault it is.
Q—You and your doubles partner, Blake Meister—what do each of you bring to the partnership?
OIJALA—The only way to describe it is that we’re a perfect pairing. Our strengths and weaknesses match up perfectly.
Blake’s phenomenal at the net, while I’m more solid and steady in the backcourt. Having him up front is really a plus. He’s got great instincts and is always rushing the net.
We also communicate pretty well and know just what to say to each other. It helps that we get along well as people too.
Q—What does Coach Eric Steidlmayer bring to the team?
OIJALA—Eric’s someone everyone respects. I think he’s a person everyone wants to improve for. Making the team better—that ‘s something he’s been very successful at doing.
I also believe he has a good understanding of where we are and what we need to work on. He’s organized and structures practice well. We’re always excited about playing and never get into that mode where we start hating tennis.
Q—What part of playing collegiate tennis would surprise most people?
OIJALA—How much time and work we put in. The average person doesn’t understand that we’re training on and off the court almost every day.
I also think it looks a lot easier to most people than it really is. The talent level is very high. In Division II, there are a lot of foreign guys who have been playing all of their lives and have a tremendous amount of match experience. I know that surprised me.
Q—Your father, Mikko, is Finnish, you have dual citizenship and plan to join the Finnish army after you graduate. What can you tell us about that?
OIJALA—My father is a first generation American, he came over here about 25 years ago. There’s a possibility that I might be interested in living and working in Finland in the future and it would be a good step toward determining that. I’m fluent to a degree and my language skills would certainly improve.
Maybe there’s a little sense of duty, as cheesy as that sounds. All the male members of my family have served. It would also be useful. I would learn something new, see some different things. That can’t be bad.
Q—How much influence did your father have on your tennis career?
OIJALA—He’s the reason I’m playing. He taught me, drove me to all the tournaments and would practice with me. He’s still quite a good player himself. I never really had a coach—he was my coach.
Q—Besides tennis and hockey, what sports do you enjoy?
OIJALA—I’ve become a football fan—a Chargers fan. If I could catch, maybe I’d be a tight end. Actually, I don’t like to watch sports that much.
Q—What do you do in your free time?
OIJALA—I go to school all day and play tennis—there’s not much free time after that. I enjoy reading books and probably go through a book a week.
Q—What are some books you’d recommend?
OIJALA—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has always been a favorite and another I read recently that I liked was Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Both are ‘60’s-oriented which interests me.
Q—What’s the best thing to do on a Saturday night in San Diego?
OIJALA—That depends on whether we have a tennis match the next day or not? If not, I’d say find a good-looking girl and take her on a date. Maybe to dinner at Hodad’s in Mission Beach and then go for a walk in Coronado.
Q—What are three things you’d like to do before you turn 25?
OIJALA—Get my masters degree, learn to speak a third language and find a job, I guess.
Q—What type of potential does this year’s UCSD team have? What are the keys to reaching that potential?
OIJALA—We were a factor in the NCAA Championships last year and with the talent that we have, I absolutely expect us to be there again. We have about five weeks to go, so it’s crunch time now—time for that last push.
To get there, I think we just have to keep up what we’ve been doing, bring a lot of energy to the court everyday and don’t take it easy. In the matches, I think it’s going to come down to doubles. When we win in doubles, it usually carries over and we’re able to come away with a victory.
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