COOS BAY — Max and Josh Nicolaus were always around tennis. They’re father, John, is a tennis junkie, always watching it, always talking about it, playing himself a fair amount.
Naturally, then, the twins began playing at a young age, but never had the spark for the sport their dad does. But with high school looming, the twins decided they wanted to make a run at it, won the state championship in their junior season and now have a chance to repeat with college careers likely in the future.
“The first time we stepped on the court, we were about 6 or 7 years old,” Max said. “We didn’t play too consistently. I don’t really remember how often we played.”
It wasn’t a goof, necessarily, but the Nicolaus twins weren’t playing tennis to win every match or dominate or make a career of it initially.
In fact, they said, it probably had more to do with their dad pushing them into it. It’s an understandable thing for a father to do, and eventually it paid off. Because after a childhood of being around tennis but never really thinking about it, the twins decided in eighth grade they would try, they would want to be good.
“Honestly at the beginning, it seemed like my dad was forcing us to practice and stuff,” Max said. “It wasn’t a bad thing. It was still fun.”
So they buckled down. They started playing four days a week during the offseason, hitting balls all the time, working on drills with John. It was boring and tedious but foundationally set them up for success.
Their freshman season wasn’t bad, and the twins set a goal to get to state as sophomores. Mission accomplished. But they saw how much farther they needed to go. They saw they couldn’t merely do what they were doing and accomplish their ever-growing goals, which now became to win a state championship.
Meanwhile, John took over the Marshfield tennis program, and now those training sessions, all those drills, all that time spent in tennis were doubled. John was around during the spring at Marshfield tennis practice. He was both dad and coach, officially.
That can strain a relationship. It can be easy to forget where the line between father, and what that word means, and coach, and what that word means, is until it is so blurred or covered that there is no line anymore.
John, though, said that’s never been a problem with his sons, and they agree. John can separate it in his mind. When they do something well in tennis, his coaching self smiles. When they do something well as people, the dad self smiles. There isn't much conflict.
“I never had that conversation with them,” John said. “I don’t know that there’s much of a difference, to be honest with you, whether you’re coaching them through tennis or coaching them through life. It’s all the same intensity.”
Entering their junior season, the Nicolaus twins wanted to get to the second day of the state tournament. That would make them one of the four best doubles teams in the state. Not bad for only deciding to be good a couple of years earlier.
The twins had their moment of clarity, their realization of their talent and potential almost exactly a year ago, during the state tournament.
In the semifinals, the twins were down a set and 4-2 in the second to the top seeds, their season hanging in the balance. Josh had a scraped knee that was bleeding and causing discomfort. They had achieved their goal of reaching the second day, but they didn’t want to lose. They’d gotten this far, they decided they wouldn’t stop now.
They somehow came away with a 7-5 win in the second set then cruised to a 6-0 third-set win. Soon after, they were state champions following a 6-1, 6-4 win in the final match.
That was the moment the twins looked at each other and said, ‘Man, we’re pretty good at this, huh?’
“We surprised ourselves by winning that match,” Max said. “It assured us that if we can come back from 4-1 against the second seed, we can do really anything we set our minds to.”
But John had another moment, more recent in its occurrence.
The Nicolaus twins have started looking for better competition, going south to California, east to Bend and north to Portland. With their state championship as juniors, they were ahead of schedule, as it were, with their goals. Senior year was the year to chase that title, but that came early, so they added to their list.
What’s next? College, they say. So to gain exposure and build their ranking, called a UTR or Universal Tennis Rating, they seek out better tournaments, better opponents, bigger places.
It was at one of these tournaments, a Class 6A invitational in Roseburg at the end of April, where Max and Josh were the only Class 4A representatives, where John had the realization that his sons’ long hours at Northwest Fitness focusing on legs and core and stamina built solid bodies that can take the punishment of tennis and give a little, as well. The long hours of drilling, repetitively drilling muscle memory into their tissue wasn’t time wasted.
“They got to the final round and ended up being second,” John said. “They lost to the top team in Oregon, Lincoln (from Portland). They got beat, but it was a good tournament. They were down one set in one match. And I don’t know, I’ve seen them down before and they don’t like it. So for the ability to turn it around and decide not to lose is something that you can use throughout the rest of your life.”
Why are they good? Because they worked, because they did the necessary things, because they’ve been surrounded by the game for most of their lives, because they set goals.
“When we started playing more tournaments (last) summer, it got more real,” Josh said. “We had just won state. Now we’re going on and trying to play tennis in college. That’s a really big goal for us. If we’re going to do that, if we’re going to hike toward that, we need to every day stay focused, be buying into everything that my dad’s saying.”