By Wes Moody
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
If a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, then perhaps Oklahoma men’s tennis sophomore Alex Ghilea by any other nickname would play just as well.
Attend a match at the Headington Family Tennis Center, the home of the Sooners, and there is little doubt you will hear shouts of 'Machine!” from the crowd and from the Sooner bench. After the match you may catch head coach John Roddick referring to him as ‘Beast Mode’ or ’Mr. Clutch’ in an interview and if the timing works out right you may get to see ‘the Clincher’ deliver again.
No matter what they are calling him, Alex Ghilea has been something to see.
The play of the sophomore from Neamt, Romania has been instrumental in the Sooners’ run to No. 1 in the nation and the National Indoor Championship this season. He is 11-3 on the year and has nine wins in dual play.
Ghilea has been racking up more than wins this season though. The nicknames have been rolling in as well.
“It was pretty early on actually,” Roddick said. “It was during conditioning. No one had been able to outrun Nick Papac or keep up with him. Alex was able to hang in there with Nick and even take it to him sometimes. He started to be referred to as ‘The Machine’.”
“I think it was because I was playing a lot of three sets and never getting tired or cramping,” Ghilea said. “In the practices when we run—that’s just what they called me. I guess it’s because of my work ethic.”
While Ghilea’s physicality may have sparked the nickname and comparisons to the NFL’s Marshawn Lynch, his play on the court has taken it to another level. Ghilea clinched wins for Oklahoma in both the semifinals and finals of the ITA National Indoor Championships in February. After the championship, Roddick had this to say.
“For Ghilea to step up again, he’s becoming Mr. Clutch for our team. We call it ‘Beast Mode’ off Marshawn Lynch when he gets into that mentality. He doesn’t lose very many matches. Very few times do you see him come out on the losing end when he starts really getting his teeth into it like that."
Perhaps no performance better encapsulates the spirit of his nicknames better than his win over Mate Zsiga of Baylor in the semifinals of the national indoors.
Ghilea trailed by a set and was down 2-5 in the second when something clicked for the young Romanian. Ghilea would win the next five games to take the set and force a third, but his improbable run didn’t stop there. Ghilea won the third set 6-0 without dropping a game. When the dust had settled, Ghilea had run off 11 straight games and clinched a finals berth for Oklahoma.
“I had a bad matchup with him a year before,” Ghilea said. “He beat me pretty easily. I wasn’t too confident, but I figured out the game plan and did what the coaches told me. Something clicked at 5-2 in the second set. Everything went my way from that point on. I had high confidence and I was feeling my serve and my forehand and that was just amazing.”
Ghilea had entered ‘Beast Mode’. The machine had taken over. He had entered that elusive state of zen that all athletes chase. Where all you shots go in and you just know you can’t be beat. He was in the zone.
“It’s when you feel that everything is going your way,” Ghilea said. “You feel that you can win that match, and you can tell by looking at your opponent. You can see the expression of disbelief on his face and in his gestures. It is just a great feeling when you realize that your shots are going the right way and you are winning easily.”
Ghilea didn’t arrive in Norman as the Machine, however. Like most freshmen, Ghilea struggled to adjust to the college game, but he also had to adjust to life in a new country.
“There were a lot of adjustments,” Ghilea said. “The language barrier. Then I had to improve my game a lot. College tennis is way different than professional tennis. I was coming from a futures environment and coming to a team environment was way different. I had to change a lot of my shots, my slice, my serve and I had to change my mentality. It was a big change. It was difficult in the beginning.”
Ghilea struggled for playing time for much of 2014. He finally got his chance at the beginning of April against Carlos Bautista of Tulsa. Ghilea won in straight sets and started a stretch in which he would win eight of his next nine matches, including a straight-sets win over Tony Lupieri of Baylor in the final of the Big 12 Championships.
“I think I needed a lot of matches to get confidence because I was low a little bit,” Ghilea said. “It was against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament, and I won that one and he was ranked like 20 in the country. That was a huge confidence boost and I don’t think I lost any more matches after that. I think that was the moment when I realized I could play at the same level as these guys.”
Since that match, Ghilea is 14-3 and has dropped just two matches in dual play.
“He just competes unbelievably well,” Roddick said. “He just never goes away and guys know that. Even if you have a lead on him you know the match isn’t over. He has lost a lot of first sets and come back to win the match. So you don’t get too concerned if he drops a set and goes to a third because you know that where he plays his best tennis.”
“We discuss it in the locker room,” Ghilea said. “Working hard and, winning or losing, trying to do the things we worked on in practice. The outcome eventually comes in our favor because we are focused on improving ourselves and giving our best every time and not giving up even if we are down a set and two breaks. It is just a mentality that we work on. It didn’t just happen. It is built over time. “
Perhaps that is why Ghilea is able to lock in like a ‘machine’. He and the rest of the Sooners treat every point the same, processing the situation and computing the same output every time. Maximum effort.
“It is something we preach,” Roddick said. “I have talked about it since I got here. Compete for every point. You can’t control how you opponent plays but you can control how you compete and make it hard on them. We always have that mentality to make it difficult for the other guy and Alex does as good a job as anyone at doing that.”
So the Machine marches on, fighting for every point, every game and every set, his attitude the embodiment of a culture. That culture is one reason he came to Oklahoma is the first place.
“I knew that coming here it was going to be a challenge to compete for a spot,” Ghilea said. “The team was so competitive an everyone wants to win every match and every point. It is a challenge to me even still to give my best and earn a spot on the team. That counted when I decided to come here.”
If you ask Ghilea about his nicknames he’ll likely just chuckle and shrug them off. Humble to his core, Ghilea doesn’t see himself as ‘The Machine’, but rather the product of one.
“I am flattered, but it is just what we have to do as tennis players,” Ghilea said. “I just try my hardest every time on the court. I don’t think that just applies to me. Florin Bragusi showed that in the last two matches that he was beast mode and everyone can be that. Andrew Harris did the same thing. It can be any one of us in any match.”