Last NCAA tournament for legendary Georgia tennis coach Manny Diaz

Georgia coach Manuel Diaz watches the Bulldogs compete against Florida on the Henry Feild Stadium courts at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex earlier this season . (Photo by Cassie Baker/UGA Athletics)

Credit: Cassie Baker/UGAAA

Credit: Cassie Baker/UGAAA

Georgia coach Manuel Diaz watches the Bulldogs compete against Florida on the Henry Feild Stadium courts at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex earlier this season . (Photo by Cassie Baker/UGA Athletics)

ATHENS — It’s not like Manny Diaz hasn’t had a chance to think over this retirement thing.

Georgia’s men’s tennis coach is 71 years old now and has spent more than a half-century at UGA. There have been numerous times he could have “gone out on top,” including last year, when his Georgia men’s tennis program produced yet another national champion.

Instead, Diaz and his appointed successor Jamie Hunt boarded a bus this week bound for an NCAA Regional in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with one of the least successful teams of his entire career.

About that, he couldn’t feel much better.

“Imagine if I would’ve stepped down last year,” Diaz said after the Bulldogs’ practice Wednesday at the Wake Forest Tennis Center. “Jamie would’ve had to deal with all that’s happened in his first year as a coach. So, you know what, I’ll take the bullet. I’m glad I’m here to provide a little bit of experience because our program hasn’t been through this in 40 years.”

All “this” would be Georgia losing its top three players before the season started. Ethan Quinn turned pro after winning the NCAA championship as a freshman a year ago; Alex Michelsen, the nation’s No. 1-ranked signee, turned pro abruptly after having success on the summer circuit; and fellow 5-star signee Ignacio Buse of Peru encountered a visa issue that prevented him from enrolling at UGA in time to compete this season, and he turned pro.

“That’s three of the top players in the country, all veritable superstars,” said Diaz, who signed the nation’s No. 1-ranked class last year. “I’ve never had our top three players do that in the same year. My goal for Jamie and for our program was to have a team that could compete at the highest level. But if you look at it from a different angle, it’s been a great year of growth. We’re laying a great foundation for this program.”

Georgia has been resilient if nothing else. With the entire roster having to play higher in the lineup than projected, the Bulldogs managed to scrap their way to a 14-13 overall record and finish in the middle of the pack in SEC play. More important, they earned an NCAA Tournament bid for the 40th consecutive season.

Georgia will open NCAA play against Arizona State at 2 p.m. Friday with hopes of advancing to face sixth-ranked Wake Forest in the second round. The Bulldogs lost to the Deacons, then ranked No. 3, 5-2 earlier this season.

“Every match for this team has been a challenge, but it’s doable,” said Diaz, the active coach with the most wins in collegiate tennis. “I guarantee you nobody wanted to see us in their draw.”

Underdog is an unfamiliar role for Diaz. He has the most wins in SEC history, eclipsing even his legendary mentor Dan Magill, the man for whom Georgia’s massive tennis facility is named.

No matter what happens, Diaz has coached the Bulldogs to six national championships, including four NCAA outdoor titles. Diaz was a part of all of Magill’s championships as well as an assistant.

“For all the trials and tribulations, difficulties and heartbreaking losses we’ve had this year, we’ve never had a moment where our guys through their arms up and wanted to quit fighting,” Diaz said. “Every time we come out, our guys give their all. You cannot shortcut experience, but they’re gaining experience and learning every time they get out there.”

In the meantime, Diaz is not planning to disappear. He’s going to stick around this summer to oversee the last incarnation of UGA’s popular Manny Diaz Tennis Camp. He and wife, Suzanne, also will welcome a second grandchild later this month.

They hope to do a lot more traveling and have a cruise planned on the Adriatic Sea, with a visit to Croatia. At least one extended trip will be to Diaz’s native Puerto Rico.

Diaz hasn’t lived there since he signed with UGA as an 18-year-old tennis phenom in the early 1970s. He has gone home as often as he could, but trips typically have been hurried and sandwiched between coaching commitments. A brother and a sister still live there.

Their mother died in 2020, and their 96-year-old father died almost a year ago. So, some major family reconnection time is foremost on Diaz’s mind.

“I have about 18 cousins down there,” Diaz said. “I’ve been talking to my sister about doing a reunion. Growing up, everybody on my father’s side would have lunch every Sunday at my grandmother’s house. We’re going to try to do that this summer.”

While this season did not go as expected, Diaz feels he has left the program in good shape for Hunt. He’ll inherit a team that does not have a senior on the roster and has room to sign at least two more players.

“Jamie is an outstanding recruiter, and him and (assistant) Bryce (Warren) have been working extremely hard; all of us have been,” Diaz said. “The portal opens up the 8th of May, and we have a recruiting trip planned to Europe in about two weeks. Georgia tennis will be back, and these guys will win a lot down the road, I predict.”