Future of Georgia women’s tennis looks bright under Drake Bernstein

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

ATHENS — Drake Bernstein just realized a lifelong dream. Not only is he becoming a college tennis head coach, but he’s getting to do it at Georgia, his alma mater.

On Monday, UGA Athletic Director Josh Brooks announced that Bernstein, who grew up in Winder and played tennis for the Bulldogs, will succeed Jeff Wallace as the head coach of Georgia’s ultra-successful women’s tennis program. Bernstein has served as Wallace’s lead assistant coach for the past 11 years.

The passing of the racket, as it were, officially will take place at the conclusion of the season. In a perfect world, that will be after the Georgia women secure the program’s seventh national championship at the USTA Tennis Complex in Orlando, Florida.

And that, Bernstein said this week, is where the focus needs to be right now. He’s obviously excited about his new appointment and what it means to him and his family and the great plans he has for the program. But, at the moment, Bernstein’s focus remains on closing the deal on a 2022-23 season that has been very good, so far, but could be great.

The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (24-4) are seeded fourth in the NCAA Tournament and will host Oklahoma (22-9) in a Super Regional matchup at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex on Friday that will determine which team advances to the championship rounds in next week in Orlando.

“Really, that’s where we’re trying to keep the focus,” said Bernstein, who won a national championship with the Georgia men’s team as a player in 2008. “This is not about me. This is not a Drake thing. This is about doing it for Jeff and the seniors.”

Blame the timing on Wallace. Having been head coach for 38 years, he has been the women’s coach longer than the 33-year-old Bernstein has been alive. In fact, Bernstein and Wallace’s son, Jarryd Wallace, were buddies growing up and would have overnight stays at each other’s homes. So, this is very much an in-the-family move by the university and one that has been anticipated in the tennis community for quite awhile.

But Wallace is nothing if not a supreme motivator. Knowing both what he wanted and what the program needed, college tennis’ active coach with the most wins decided to tell the team Thursday that he planned to retire at season’s end. Georgia didn’t announce Bernstein’s appointment until Monday, but the players were well aware it was coming. That Bernstein eventually would succeed his highly decorated mentor was a poorly kept secret.

“This is so well-deserved,” Wallace said. “Drake has worked so hard. He’s jumped through every hoop you could ever ask anybody to jump through to assume a role like this. I’m thrilled for Drake and his family, but I’m also thrilled for Georgia’s women’s tennis. I think the continuity linking the future with the past players is good for the program and allows that Georgia family tradition to continue.”

Said Bernstein: “Jeff’s been incredible for me, really just taking me under his wing and getting me prepared for this. You know, we had conversations about (succession), but it was always going to be on Jeff’s terms. Jeff is ready to spend some time with his grandkids and to watch his son run. So, I’m ready to step up to the plate and take my turn.”

Bernstein should be ready. Wallace handed his lead assistant the reins on recruiting a few years ago. Bernstein occasionally handles post-match media interviews and, having competed at the highest levels of college tennis, he is a major resource for players at practice and during matches.

Manny Diaz, Bernstein’s college coach, remains a confidante. He also is close friends with former men’s assistant Will Glenn and current associate men’s coach Jamie Hunt, a teammate on UGA’s 2008 national championship team. But his circle of influence extends beyond the walls of the vast Dan Magill Tennis Complex. After a stint on the pro tennis circuit, Bernstein’s first college coaching job was at Alabama working under the great Jenny Mainz.

“I feel prepared,” said Bernstein, who served as a captain of Georgia 2011 men’s team. “I just feel like I’ve had some of the best leaders and mentors out there. Now it’s up to me to put my spin on it, I guess.”

Wallace and Bernstein will transition into their new roles together this summer. After the season, they’ll co-lead three tennis camps, then Wallace will ride off into the sunset.

Sometime after that, Bernstein will dig deep into putting his mark on the program. Until then, he said, his mind is very much on the here and now.

“This is about celebrating Jeff and celebrating these seniors who have poured so much into this program,” Bernstein said. “We talked about that at dinner the other night. I said, ‘Guys, Jeff has done this for 38 years. It’s hard to imagine the lives that he has touched and the amount of people he’s been around. The least we can do is leave it all out there for one more tournament run.’”

Georgia is very much in the hunt for another title. After losing only one SEC match, to eventual champion regular-season Texas A&M, the Bulldogs knocked off the Aggies to win the SEC Tournament last month. UGA rode that momentum into the NCAA Tournament, smoking the competition without dropping a set in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

Georgia will be favored again in Friday’s Super Regional matchup, but it will face an Oklahoma team eager to prove it can compete with the mighty SEC. The Sooners, of course, will be joining the conference in 2024.

Both Bernstein and Wallace are hopeful that the Henry Feild Stadium grandstands are jam-packed for that Friday evening tilt. In a lot of ways, that storied facility is representative of the coaching transition currently taking place at UGA.

The scene of great drama and incredible NCAA matches over the years, the infamous wooden-bleacher grandstand named after a late tennis lettermen of the 1960s underwent an $8.5 million facelift a few years ago. It now stands tall as an imposing concrete structure capable of seating more than 1,800 for a tennis match.

“That old grandstand was so historic; everything that is Georgia tennis was in those bleachers,” Bernstein said. “Then, we went and gave it a facelift. It still carries the same tradition, but it feels like today a little bit more.”

So does a young coach with a young wife and young kids. Bernstein is married to former Georgia gymnast Cassidy McCombs, and they have two children, Brody and Cashton.

With a new multi-million-dollar indoor facility under construction next door and the 2026 NCAA Championships set for Athens, the future of Georgia tennis looks strong. Accordingly, Bernstein is brimming with optimism.

“I feel comfortable telling anybody that Georgia tennis is the best experience on the planet,” he said with a laugh. “I’m excited.”