South African-native Matt Fawcett checked his email inbox one fateful night, but decided to go through his spam folder as well. Alongside questionable messages for services and peculiar job opportunities, sat one particularly interesting email — one from then– Mustang tennis head coach Justin McGrath.
The email offered Fawcett — a 21-year old junior transfer at the time — a full-ride scholarship to play tennis for Cal Poly.
“I never check my spam folder — I mean who checks their spam folder? But for some reason that day I went through it,” Fawcett said. “It’s weird how things work out. (McGrath) offered me a full scholarship, so I did my research of the place. Being my third time through the recruitment process, I was getting kind of good at it so, I went for it.”
It wasn’t a conventional path to recruitment for Fawcett, but being a veteran of the process, and admittedly a bit frustrated with it as well, he decided to take a chance on the Central Coast school that was recruiting him via cyberspace.
Fawcett’s path to San Luis Obispo was about as predictable as the location of a lightning strike. The roller coaster journey began back in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2006.
After a successful high school tennis career, Fawcett was sought after by elite American collegiate programs such as Baylor, Texas and Pepperdine. But, the 6-foot-4 star all but eliminated his chances at attending one of those top-10 programs after suffering a devastating ankle injury while playing in Germany that winter. According to Fawcett, those schools “hit the road real fast” once they heard his ankle required surgery.
After rehabilitation, Fawcett decided to play for Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Va., on the word of a fellow South African tennis player in early 2008, and began a training regimen for the spring season. But due to the long months of inactivity, Fawcett had a rocky freshman year for the Monarchs. As a result he had his scholarship cut nearly in half by the head coach. Coupled with the frigid Virginia winter, the Cape Town-native wanted out of Norfolk.
“I couldn’t really connect with the place,” Fawcett said. “Being from South Africa, I was used to beaches and beautiful weather and sunshine every day, but Virginia was like indoor tennis for four months out of the season.”
Fawcett decided to stay for his sophomore season at ODU though, a decision he said he used as a “bargaining chip” when it came to recruitment time again. He had a phenomenal sophomore year winning his first 17 matches and finishing with a 24-8 overall singles record in 2009.
“It’s kind of strange,” he said. “After the coach cuts (you), you have a good season, and all of a sudden, they want you. It’s college tennis, and it’s a funny thing sometimes.”
Fawcett was determined to leave, so he decided to transfer at the end of the season — but the Monarchs’ coaching staff didn’t agree with his decision and wouldn’t grant him his release. After battling through NCAA politics, Fawcett finally received it in June 2009.
He had been seeking schools in warm locations such as California and Florida, when Fawcett received the spam email that sent him to Cal Poly in January 2010.
“The biggest advantage of having him in our lineup is in the doubles,” current head coach Nick Carless said. “Allowing him to play up there in the No. 1 spot with (Andre) Dome makes them a very formidable doubles team against anybody in the country.”
But the path to becoming an everyday force on the court came to an abrupt halt following a successful first season as a Mustang for the senior.
Practicing one day in the summer of 2010, Fawcett took a misstep and twisted his left knee in an awkward direction that resulted in a partially-torn ACL, an injury he attributes to the especially sandy courts due to nearby construction of the Recreation Center at the time.
To add insult to injury — literally — every effort Fawcett made to return to match action resulted in more pain and inflammation as his knee was healing. The diagnosis: tendinitis.
“When you know you can play at a certain level and you’re not playing there, it’s very frustrating,” Fawcett said. “That’s the biggest challenge; not getting frustrated and being realistic about my abilities.”
After an 18-month hiatus and a summer filled with consultations with top-notch knee specialists in South Africa, Fawcett is now in his final year of eligibility with the Mustangs. He returned to the courts in doubles competition with the No. 20 Dome against UNLV on Feb. 24.
“It’s always tough to come back from injury because you don’t want to do too much or too little,” Dome said. “(Fawcett) has had some ups and downs, but he’s on the right track and he’s looking stronger every match.”
Anchored by Dome and Fawcett’s excellent doubles play — they are the No. 55 ranked team in the country — the Mustangs are 11-5 and 3-0 in the Big West this year. After starting the season on a three-game losing skid, Cal Poly regained its form and rattled off eight straight wins outscoring their opponents 47-6 during that stretch.
Since, the Mustangs have gone 3-2 including a heartbreaking loss to No. 17-ranked Washington on March 23. Junior Jordan Bridge evened the match at three apiece defeating Victon Farkas in straight sets, 7-6, 6-4 to set up a decisive final match for Dome against No. 17 Kyle McMorrow. The junior won the first set but dropped the next two 7-6, 6-4 to hand the Huskies the victory.
“We know we have the talent,” Fawcett said. “Every spot we got guys that are just good tennis players. We know we have the firepower, and we’re just trying to find our energy and our mojo. I think we’re due for a massive win like the one we missed out on against Washington.”
In its most recent match, Cal Poly walked away 4-1 winners in a rain-shortened affair against Big West opponent Pacific. Senior Brian McPhee secured the win with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over Alex Golding as it began to drizzle.
Fawcett, plagued by discomfort in his knee, dropped Cal Poly’s only match on the day 6-4, 6-4 to freshman Ben Mirkin.
“(Fawcett) has struggled with having his body withstand multiple singles matches,” Carless said. “There’s a lot of wear and tear that goes on in the body in hard core tennis, especially at the high level these guys play at.”
The Mustangs have four matches remaining, including two against conference opponents before the Big West Championships in Indian Wells, Calif., on April 27 and 28. The team hopes to either earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament or an automatic spot as conference champions.