Tripp Phillips serves as mentor to tennis players after returning to UNC
Tripp Phillips has a fitting first name.
His path to becoming the North Carolina men’s tennis assistant coach has been a trip, and a long one at that.
But he’s finally settled down.
“There’s nothing like being a player, but that can’t last forever,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ trip might be over now that he is 34 years old and a husband, father and sixth-year coach.
But now, he’s helping another Tar Heel’s trip begin.
UNC junior Jose Hernandez, an All-American last season, wants to play professionally. And he said no one can help him with his goal better than Tripp.
“It’s a privilege to have someone who played the ATP levels, who’s been there, who’s done that, and is right there in Chapel Hill for you 24/7,” Hernandez said.
“It’s a jumping stone from college to professional tennis, and that’s what I’m looking for.”
Only five years ago, Phillips was playing on the biggest stages in professional tennis — the four Grand Slams. Just more than 10 years ago, he was a college star for UNC.
And now, as the Tar Heels’ assistant coach, Phillips has come full circle.
Now his wife, Laura, and two young sons, Owen and James, sometimes watch from the stands as Phillips, now an onlooker himself, gives his players advice during matches.
But in his best days with the ATP World Tour, he didn’t have a wife; he had a partner — Australia’s Ashley Fisher, who helped Phillips become one of the world’s top doubles players.
But in 2006, ranked No. 29 in the world, Tripp came back to Chapel Hill.
He was getting married that November, and the stress from traveling all over the world was piling up.
So when a job opened up at North Carolina, Phillips took it.
“There was a little bit of an issue because I was at a new career high, and did I really want to stop playing after that?” Phillips said. “But the idea of being in Chapel Hill was very attractive to me regardless of how well I had just done.”
In Tripp’s six years coaching, UNC has produced five All-America athletes, including Hernandez.
“Hopefully I had a part in it,” Phillips said.
Now Tripp is focused on his players’ futures. But he hasn’t put his past behind him.
North Carolina coach Sam Paul said Tripp was one of the best recruits he ever had.
“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever had on the court,” Paul said. “That translates into coaching because he sees the court so well.”
Phillips dominated at North Carolina, especially in his All-America senior year in 2000. But he almost didn’t come to UNC in the first place.
“To be honest, I didn’t go into the recruiting process thinking UNC was where I would end up,” Phillips said. “But then you start making your visits, and UNC just separated itself.”
Phillips’ professional success surprised him — but only because he played better in doubles than singles.
Phillips and Fisher reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open in 2006, the year that culminated in his No. 29 ranking.
Phillips also won two other doubles events before he retired in 2008.
“The ironic thing is I was the assistant coach at UNC for all three of those,” Phillips said. “I took the job two weeks before the U.S. Open then proceeded to have the best results of my life.”
But one of his best moments as a tennis player came in his first-ever Grand Slam match.
Phillips’ dad likes to tell a story about when Tripp was five years old, watching a televised match on Centre Court at Wimbledon, pointing at the screen and saying he would play there one day.
A stroke of luck helped that dream come true.
Phillips was waiting to play his first match at Wimbledon, but it had been raining and he expected it to be canceled.
He checked with an official, who said it would be canceled unless Venus Williams lost a second-set tiebreaker on Centre Court.
During the tiebreaker, the officials awarded a phantom extra point to Williams’ opponent, Karolina Sprem.
“The referees absolutely ruined the score,” Phillips said. “I was one of the only people that actually noticed it because I was glued to the TV.”
Williams lost, and suddenly Phillips was slotted to play — on Centre Court at Wimbledon, the most famous tennis court in the world. All thanks to a fluke loss by one of the best female tennis players of all time.
“I never officially thanked her,” Phillips said.
But Tripp and his partner lost a heartbreaker, and Phillips remembers the details all too well.
“We were dominating on Centre Court,” Phillips said. “We were up 6-2, 4-2, 40-15, and it started to rain. My partner had this easy overhead on the net, slipped and fell down, and the court was too wet to play.
“The next day, we played on an outer court, and they came back and won 7-5 in the third set. But we were winning on Centre Court, so I look at it as the glass half full.”
Return to Chapel Hill
Even after Phillips started coaching, he stayed on the ATP tour. But gradually, because of the time commitment, he stopped playing altogether.
“It’s tough to maintain a ranking when you’re not playing a lot,” Phillips said. “That first year I was still seeded in three of the four Grand Slams, but slowly it whittled down.”
Paul said Tripp is one of the best coaches in the country and could easily be a head coach.
Hernandez credits Tripp with improving his mental toughness.
“You learn tennis when you’re like eight, and once you turn 17 that’s your game and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Hernandez said. “But you can change your mindset and train at a professional level.”
Hernandez is just the latest in the string of players honored under Phillips, but the only one to earn the award in singles.
Phillips said what he focuses on depends on the individual.
“I can’t make somebody serve 145 miles an hour,” Phillips said. “But I can help with how they think about certain situations and prepare.”
Even after coaching five All-Americans, Phillips doesn’t measure success in accolades.
“My role is to make sure these guys are good students and great people,” he said. “Then I help them be the best players they can be, whether they dream of being an All-American, playing professional tennis or just making the lineup.”
Phillips’ story is an unusual one, and he’s the first to acknowledge that fact.
Tripp didn’t switch to coaching because of age or injury. He was in his prime, and he knew he was phasing himself out of the game.
But Phillips said if he wanted to, he could return today.
“There are a lot of guys out there playing that are older than I am,” Phillips said. “If that was my priority, in theory I could be one of those guys.
“If I could work it out where they would give me wild cards into the four Grand Slams each year, and I could still coach, that would be my ultimate dream job.”
But Phillips is content to help his players, like Hernandez, along their own roads.
“To come through UNC and then come back and help other people have the same experience I had is awesome,” Tripp said. “It’s why I’m here.”
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