The University of Miami is down to a precious few backhand winners from Stephanie Wagner.
The 5-11 German powerhouse is a senior, and time is running out on one of the greatest careers in the history of Hurricanes tennis.
Wagner crushes groundstrokes from either side, but it’s her backhand down the line that has become her signature shot.
“You have to have courage to play a backhand down the line,” said Wagner, who is from the city of Amberg. “I’ve always played aggressive. I’m not afraid to hit that shot.”
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Teammate Sinead Lohan has been a witness.
“When she is set up to hit that shot,” Lohan said, “there is no way it’s coming back.”
Perhaps that explains why Wagner is the sixth-ranked player in women’s college tennis.
Wagner, who will play the final regular-season match of her career Sunday at home against Louisville, is 130-40 — just three wins shy of the Canes’ career record for singles victories, trailing only current assistant coach Laura Vallverdu (131-34) and Bianca Eichkorn (133-31).
Eichkorn, who played for UM from 2007-11, is also from Germany. But she and Wagner have never met.
Still, it didn’t hurt in Miami’s recruitment of Wagner that it could show demonstrated success of another German in the program.
Wagner was an immediate success at UM, producing a 21-8 record and winning Southeast Region Rookie of the Year honors. She improved to 34-8 as a sophomore and 38-12 as a junior, earning first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in each of those years.
Now as a senior, Wagner, along with the sophomore Lohan, who is ranked eighth in the nation, form perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the nation.
They are key reasons the Canes (16-4) are ranked seventh in the nation and are poised to reach at least the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships for the 11th consecutive season.
Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, who has been the Canes coach for the entirety of that run, said she gets “goose bumps” when talking about Wagner.
“She’s a special one,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She can hit a winner from anywhere on the court. She’s an intense competitor — the girl has qualities most athletes don’t possess.”
Wagner’s qualities include her intelligence. Last year, she was the ACC Women’s Tennis Scholar-Athlete of the Year as well as UM’s Student-Athlete of the Year.
An economics major, Wagner has made the Dean’s List five times and plans to go for her Master’s degree next fall at UM.
On the court, Wagner’s best attribute is her determination.
Vallverdu said that when Wagner arrived on campus in the fall of 2012 she was “kind of soft.” In her first tournament with UM, Wagner lost to a Division II player.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’ ” Vallverdu recalled. “I wasn’t sure she was going to be any good.”
Wagner turned out to be really good, in part because of her stubborn nature. If the game plan is to hit the ball to the corner on her opponent’s backhand, Wagner will drill shot after shot in that location until the point is won.
“She is relentless,” Vallverdu said. “Combine that with her ability to strike a tennis ball and you have a top-10 player. Not many kids can handle her because she hits so hard and so deep.”
Wagner still has areas where she can improve, including her serve, her play at the net and conditioning.
But it’s also safe to say that Wagner, along with Lohan, saved Miami’s season when the Canes suffered a huge injury blow in October.
Sophomore Yolimar Ogando, who UM coaches believe would have been challenging Lohan for the No. 2 singles spot, tore her ACL in a tournament, and the Canes needed their leaders to lift up the other five women on the team.
And that’s exactly what’s happened.
“There have been many times on the court when Steffi is not playing her best tennis,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “But she will look at me in the changeover and say, ‘Paige, there’s no way I’m losing this match.’
“There are not a lot of girls who will talk to their coach like that, but that’s what I love about Steffi.”