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Serve and volley

Men’s tennis doubles partners take their game — and their friendship — to the next level

Thomson and Samuel in a game of tennis. One is hitting the ball with a racquet.

If you pay attention to men’s tennis at the University of South Carolina, you’ve probably noticed how much top-notch talent has taken the court in recent years. You might also have noticed something else: A lot of that recent Gamecock talent hails from the British Isles.

The pipeline opened in 2016, when Paul Jubb, a native of Hull, England, became one of the best players in program history. Jubb enjoyed a storied collegiate career — including a 38-4 singles record his junior year and an NCAA Singles National Championship title in 2019 — before earning a wild card to Wimbledon.

That tradition continued in 2023, when men’s doubles partners Connor Thomson and Toby Samuel earned their own Wimbledon wild card. Thomson hails from Paisley, Scotland, and Samuel is from Bournemouth, on England’s south coast, but both now sport the garnet and black — at least, when they’re not decked out in Wimbledon white.

And none of this happened in a vacuum. The pair secured a spot at tennis’s most prestigious tournament after maintaining the No.1 ITA ranking through all but one week of the 2022-23 collegiate season and playing well in the professional grass court season this summer.

They earned their wild card through teamwork. But if you ask Thomson and Samuel for the secret to their doubles success, each man will point his racket at the other.

“The guy's exceptional,” says Thomson of his teammate. “He can do just about anything on the court. He can defend, he can attack, he's got a big serve, he can volley — it's good to be up against that every single day. I hope that he feels the same way whenever I play him.”

When you're good pals with somebody, it makes playing a lot easier. It's pretty cool to be out there with your mate at Wimbledon playing at the greatest tennis venue in the world.

Connor Thomson

Samuel does. But he is most impressed by his doubles partner’s intensity and how the two feed off one another’s distinct styles of play. “It's a pretty interesting dynamic,” says the Bournemouth native. “He’s loud. He brings the energy, brings the atmosphere. I'm sort of there to keep the mood light, keep him relaxed, not let him go too far and get too intense in the situation. We balance each other out.”

Thomson, for his part, tries to challenge Samuel as much as possible: “I can bring some different things to the court and create different problems for him. And, you know, that's a major reason why we both had really successful years.”

Another big reason, of course, is their chemistry. Samuel and Thomson knew each other coming up through the U.K. junior tennis circuit, and once Samuel followed Thomson to USC — again, both on the encouragement of Jubb — they became not just roommates and teammates but mates, in the British sense.

“It's good to have good mates and be able to push each other,” says Thomson. “I think that’s part of why Gamecock tennis has done well over the past few years. We have a good culture. We try to boost each other to get better.”

That’s true on the court and off, though Samuel likes to rib his mate in interviews, knowing his digs will get back to Thomson and elicit a response. For example, he told one interviewer that Thomson is lazy and never cleans up around the apartment. It was a stretch, even by locker room standards.

“That’s the biggest lie you’ll ever hear!” Thomson rolls his eyes not to smile. “I mean, he can call me whatever he wants, but if he calls me lazy and unclean, that’s where I draw the line — I’m not having that! I’m essentially the mom of the household here.” 

After he finishes laughing, the Scotsman take a few jabs of his own at Samuel, though he tempers them with praise: “When he first came in, he was like the laziest person that ever existed, but he’s matured a lot, and that’s definitely impacted his tennis. He’s now kicked on and he's doing amazing things.”

Samuel doesn’t challenge the call. In fact, he owns it: “My nickname used to be ‘the sloth’ because I took so long to do anything. I've definitely improved at that since I’ve been in college, but it was — it was pretty true!”

And yet, the onetime sloth is also sheepishly satisfied to have landed the shot, even as he compliments his partner.  It’s another aspect of their competitive but good-natured relationship.

“He’s the organized one,” Samuel admits with a laugh. “He’s the person that’s telling me what time we’ve got things — like this interview. He was like, ‘Don’t forget. 8 p.m. today, interview.’ But you need to be organized and know what you're doing off the court, which will help you on the court in the end.”

If you think the constant back and forth doesn’t translate on-court, think again. Thomson and Samuel didn’t just enjoy a nice run in the 2023 grass court season en route to the wild card at Wimbledon; they exceeded expectations, pulling off a straight-set win over Pedro Cachin of Argentina and Yannick Hanfmann of Germany in the first round before falling in round two.

And they’re eager to take their game to the next level — as doubles partners but also singles players. Both are taking the fall semester off to see what they can do professionally before returning to USC in the spring. Both also look back fondly on the summer that was and the connection they have made on the court and off.

“When you’re good pals with somebody, it makes playing a lot easier,” Thomson says. “It’s pretty cool to be out there with your mate at Wimbledon playing at the greatest tennis venue in the world.”