This week (April 9 – 13) is the inaugural celebration of Division III Week by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Gustavus has organized a full week of activities to celebrate and highlight the College’s strong belief in the ideals of NCAA Division III athletics. A place where student-athletes can experience the full range of college educational opportunities on campus, where they can discover their passions, develop their potential, and dedicate themselves to leadership and to making a difference. We would like to open Division III Week with this feature story about Gustavus alum Eric Butorac ‘03, the NCAA Division III Singles and Doubles Champion in 2003, who began this year ranked #17 in the world in doubles. He has won 13 Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour titles in his 10-year professional career. The story is written by Gustavus alum Anne Noonan ’91.
What makes someone change his or her path?
On a snowy Saturday evening in December, I wandered around the Lifetime Fitness in Eden Prairie, scoping out the Minnesota Tennis Challenge. I was there to discover who Rochester native Eric Butorac ’03 was, and to try to figure out how he had decided to become a professional tennis player after graduating from Gustavus Adolphus College. What made him dream so big?
A successful Division I tennis player for Ball State in Muncie, Ind., Butorac decided in the middle of his sophomore year to transfer to Gustavus. He’d been having fun at Ball State—playing tennis, making good friends, and doing well in the honors program. Yet there was something pulling him to the small school in a town smaller than the one he’d grown up in. As he told me, “It was through talking to those guys (friends and fellow tennis players) I realized that it was a pretty special place and I was missing out on something if I didn’t go. I just thought there was something different for me, somewhere else, so I went for it. It was probably the toughest decision I ever had to make.”
I asked Butorac what his expectations were when he first arrived at Gustavus. “The main reason I went to the school was to play tennis for Steve Wilkinson, so that was something I was really looking forward to, and I knew it would be a huge part of my life.”
I found Butorac’s Gustavus doubles partner and best childhood friend Kevin Whipple. I introduced myself and asked if he’d be willing to be my first guinea pig in my investigation into Eric Butorac. Whipple smiled with amusement when I prodded him to tell me something about Eric that not everyone knows. Does he love sweet pickles? Have a fascination with bulldogs? He asked if we could come back to that question. I tried to make it a little easier on him, asking simply, ‘What do you love about Eric?’
“Well, just from the tennis aspect of things, his willingness to put it all on the line.” With a thoughtful turn of the head, he explained, “I mean, when he told me he was gonna try (to go pro), I kind of started laughing a little bit, you know, but he really put it on the line and just made sure he got better every day. And within a few years he’s playing grand slams. The whole story is almost not believable, to some degree. In Division I, a couple guys a year might make it to where they’re actually playing grand slams—and that’s Division I. Division III—nobody does that. So yeah, I respect that a lot.” I nodded a lot at Whipple. I was beginning to get the enormity of what Butorac had done, but I wanted to understand his story even better.
A few weeks after the Minnesota Tennis Challenge, I connected with Tommy Valentini ’02 by email. Valentini, the current men’s tennis coach at Gustavus, was Eric’s teammate and friend during college. He explained what it meant to them to have Butorac transfer to Gustavus and join their team: “We knew of him and wanted him in our program when he graduated high school as the Minnesota state champion. As word got to us that he would be joining our team, there was quite the buzz with our guys. We knew a player of Booty’s caliber could help us get to the top of Division III and make us better as individuals and as a team. Soon we would learn that his talent came second in importance to his friendship and his role in our team’s already excellent chemistry.”
Butorac (lower right) with Kevin Whipple ’03 and Steve Wilkinson after winning the 2003 Division III Doubles Championship.
The Gustavus tennis players in Butorac’s era were a talented and close group, according to Valentini. I was curious if Butorac exhibited certain traits early on—traits that would later explain his boldness in attempting to go pro. Whipple had said he would put it all on the line. What else was there about Eric that made him unique, I wondered.
Valentini explained further: “Eric is a student of life and the game. He’s constantly looking for ways to improve himself and his tennis. He’s willing and open to learning from everyone that he encounters while never forgetting where he came from or the trust he has in himself. He is also exceptionally adaptable—he adapted to Gustavus and our team philosophy very quickly—and he’s done this continually on the pro tour. He’s adapted his game, his approach to playing with different partners, and he has an uncanny ability to live in a different city over 40 weeks of the year without being adversely impacted. He’s also very energetic, yet calm and focused.”
The idea to try tennis at the pro level didn’t come from any of his friends or from Wilkinson, however. Butorac spent January term of his senior year in an internship with sports psychologist Jim Loehr in Florida. After five weeks of playing tennis, training, and seeing some pro players come through the camp, he thought to himself,I can give this a try. A friend who was planning to move to France to try to become a pro himself, convinced Butorac to join him. That spring, back at Gustavus, he started training at an entirely new level. At the same time, he did some light fundraising with family and friends. By mid-summer to early fall of 2003, he had moved to France.
Wilkinson, Butorac’s coach while at Gustavus, describes him as someone who goes after a goal with complete dedication. Wilkinson has had a tremendous influence on Butorac, and continues to do so. As Butorac explains, “He’s the best sounding board and advice-giver that I can go to. He gave me this inner desire or goal to become the best tennis player that I can be. It sounds really simple, but there’s a lot to that. He instilled in me this desire to improve regardless of the situation.”
Improving regardless of the situation: it sounds so simple. But, as Butorac told me, that means working as hard on your game when you’re playing on an indoor court in Minnesota in December as it does when you’re on the courts of a grand slam. It means working on perfecting your game if there are crowds clamoring around the courts or if there is no one watching. And he made a pact with himself: during his pro career, he’d work on continuing to improve until he could improve no more. When he reached that point, he’d be done. Clearly he’s not there yet. As he said, “And now here I am, sitting at #20 in the world, and now it’s still about getting better and it’s still about seeing how high I can go, but now it’s a somewhat lucrative career.”
Coming to Gustavus, Butorac knew he’d be getting a great tennis coach. What surprised him was Wilkinson’s acuity toward the modern game. “He was able to coach tennis at such a high level, even in the modern game. You meet a lot of people who are Steve’s age and they try to coach you to be a tennis player, back in their era. I think one of the things that makes Steve special is that he can realize what a player needs to do, even in this modern day, to become really great. And he was able to do that with me and recommend a lot of things in my game to help me improve.”
A determination to be a professional athlete and constantly improve your game is one thing, but there has to be more. Valentini agreed, “He also had the physical frame to play at a high level, and a pro-level serve and set of hands in just about every aspect. The physical base was always there.”
So I’d established that there was a special drive in Eric, a spark that let him believe he could do anything if he just tried. And even if he tried and failed, he wasn’t failing, because his entire training under Wilkinson had taught him that continual self-improvement—both on the court and off—was part of being a winner.
Next I wondered, how did he go about it? What was the path to becoming a pro?
Whipple chuckled as he gave his take on it: “I thought he’d spend a whole bunch of money, go to Europe, try to play tennis and come back.”
As Butorac explained to me, he did in fact spend the first year after Gustavus in Europe, playing club level tennis in France and working on a game he hoped would be good enough to allow him to compete on the ATP tour. It was the approach he took—as guided by Wilkinson—that was key. “I think I had a really realistic goal when I started this, which was, Look I’m gonna go over and try this for a short period of time. I definitely want tennis to be a major part of my life in the future. I didn’t really have aspirations of making it on the pro tour like I am, like I’m playing today. And I think because of that, I was able to succeed, and make a lot of small strides along the way. I mean, it felt like huge achievements because I was constantly breaking these goals that I had set for myself all along the away. And Steve was a big part of that. He was just constantly saying, Let’s see if you can make one ATP point—there’s no Division III players who’ve been ranked for the last 20 years. See if you can make one ATP point. And then I got one, and Steve was like Wow, this is so great. I was on top of the world and I was ranked number 1,560. And was still negative thousands of dollars on the year. So I think the way he was able to help me phrase it, everything I did was just a great success.”
Not only has Butorac risen to his current ranking of top twenties in the world in men’s doubles, but he has received recognition from his peers in the form of being voted onto the ATP Player Council. Butorac is part of a ten-player committee that meets with the board and CEO regularly to go through issues relating to prize money, rules, and scheduling. He’s in his second term on the council and is one of only two doubles players—the other is Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are among the other eight players.
The idea of giving back to Minnesota in some way had been rattling around Butorac’s brain for a couple of years. He’d talked about it with Marc Miller ‘83, former executive director of St. Paul Urban Tennis. Miller knew Butorac wanted to make something happen, and one summer day over a beer, he said, ‘You know this idea you’ve had? I think I can make it happen.’ Butorac would bring in the big names, and Miller would arrange the logistics back in the Twin Cities.
“People always ask me why I did it. There were three goals: to bring pro tennis to Minnesota; to bring all of Minnesota tennis together for a holiday party; and to raise money and sink it back into the development of Minnesota tennis,” Butorac offered.
The Fred Wells Tennis & Education Center—a partner in putting on the Minnesota Tennis Challenge—is also one of the three benefactors of the event. Margot Willett, the executive director, explains how this event affects her organization: “It’s a great event. We serve about 550 kids a year; 65% of those kids are on some form of scholarship, so every different way in which we can raise money helps. We believe in partnerships. We believe that two or three or four groups together can probably accomplish a lot more than one.”
It began to hit me how big of a leap Butorac had made when he decided to try professional tennis following his graduation from Gustavus. With Whipple still grinning in amusement—clearly happy for his old friend—I turned my head to get a full view of the scene all around me. People were everywhere, all turned out to help with this cause: to raise money for kids’ tennis programs in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Rochester. And Butorac created all of this after he took an unprecedented leap to try something almost no one tries.
Behind the scenes are two of Eric’s key supporters: his mom and dad. Butorac’s father—who also played tennis as a Gustie under Wilkinson—taught his son the importance of sportsmanship early on. As Butorac put it, “Growing up, we had a family rule that after the match I would have to go speak with my opponent, compliment him, ask him where he was from.” When the young Butorac went to Gustavus to play under Wilkinson himself, he learned exactly where his father had gotten that tradition of sportsmanship: from Steve Wilkinson. Butorac’s mom functions as his manager, helping him with day-to-day issues with bank accounts, health insurance, and more. Moving to different cities all over the world on an almost weekly basis is complicated.
This fall, as Butorac celebrated his marriage in Newport, RI, twenty of his tennis buddies from Gustavus came to attend his wedding and play in a friendly tournament on the grass courts at the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino. Everyone wore whites, and Steve Wilkinson stood right in the middle.
As Eric puts it, “Steve, for me, was what Gustavus was all about. Whenever I had a tough situation or needed someone to sort of bond with, it was always him. He was the reason I went to Gustavus, and it was better than I ever could have imagined.”
Eric Butorac made two key changes in his life path: coming to Gustavus, and making a go at being a pro. In my quest to understand why people change paths, it really came down to this: he seemed to have a hunch there was something better down the other road.
Eric’s current partner on the ATP Tour is Bruno Soares of Brazil. The pair advanced to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and more recently won the Brasil Open in Costa do Sauipe, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. It was Butorac’s 13th ATP Tour doubles title of his career.