As the top player on UVA’s Club Tennis team, fourth-year Andrew Roberts grins ear-to-ear after casually launching a 115-mph serve down the center of the service box at the Snyder Tennis Courts, where he plays with his friends almost every day. When it’s his opponent’s turn to serve, Roberts can finish a point before it even starts, ripping an artillery-like forehand return that lands in a distant corner of the court.
Affectionately known as “A Rob,” Roberts joined Club Tennis in his first year at UVA and quickly earned the #1 spot on the team. He has won every singles match, both within his own team and against competing schools, and led the Virginia team to victory in the Mid-Atlantic Sectionals before the COVID pandemic.
But when Roberts was born, few could predict that he would become the athlete he is today. In fact, days after his birth, Roberts’s mother, a pediatric geneticist by trade, knew that something was wrong. She noticed serious infections in her newborn son and diagnosed him with cyclic neutropenia, a rare blood disorder affecting only one individual out of every million. The disorder meant that Roberts’s white-blood-cell level was dangerously low, making ordinary bacteria, viruses, and infections potentially deadly.
Roberts’s prognosis? Three months at best. “They basically told my mother, ‘Don’t expect him to last long,’” Roberts later said. His infections were at high risk of being life-threatening at such an early age.
Thankfully, Roberts’s mother’s early diagnosis saved his life, as he was able to receive prompt treatment via injections of Filgrastim, which stimulates the growth of white blood cells.
But even though his life was saved, the disorder never left Roberts, who will continue to need injections of Filgrastim every other day for his whole life. Even with this treatment, however, Roberts’s immune system still has major deficiencies: for example, a simple paper cut could lead to him getting very sick. Furthermore, as a result of the condition, Roberts needs 12-14 hours of sleep to function at a normal level.
When the COVID pandemic came, Roberts’s friends joked that he would be the first among them to catch the virus — a potentially serious outcome given that being immunocompromised makes it more likely for Roberts to become severely ill from COVID-19. “But every test I’ve had so far is negative,” he said with a wide smile. “And I’ll be getting my second vaccine dose later this week.”
Despite this condition, Roberts had an intensely active childhood growing up in Virginia Beach, playing soccer, golf, and tennis. At age 3, he picked up his first tennis racquet. Roberts’s mother had started taking tennis lessons and needed a place to put him, so she decided to enroll Roberts as well.
Roberts fell in love with the sport. “If you play tennis, you know the feeling. When you strike that clean forehand, you get a natural high — an adrenaline rush that I haven’t found anywhere else.”
By age 9, Roberts was able to beat his mother, on the court. When he won his first tournament at age 10, Roberts decided to focus exclusively on tennis. Training multiple times a week at Princess Anne Country Club, Roberts began competing in USTA (US Tennis Association) Junior Team Tennis, where won the highest-level tournament for 12-and-unders. “I made a lot of great friends there,” he said, “and I was very, very blessed to live only a street away from where I play tennis.”
In high school, Roberts made it to the USTA National Championships four times, reaching third place in his age group nationally. After his match, he was presented with an honorary lei from the Hawaiian team and awarded the National Sportsmanship Award. “That was definitely one of my favorite memories from competing,” he said.
Roberts wins Sportsmanship Award at USTA Nationals
A big smile
However, during this time, Roberts was dealing with real challenges off the court. Raised since birth by his single mother, Roberts experienced the loss of his father at age 11. Throughout this time, cyclic neutropenia was giving him very painful mouth ulcers, some so bad that he was unable to speak or attend class. One time, he was sent to the emergency room because a cut on his toe got badly infected on a family vacation. For his mother, these moments were unbearably frightening.
But Roberts has not let any of these complications slow him down. He said, “Because of the way the disorder affects my sleep, sometimes I might be more tired than the next person, but I’m doing well overall. If I’m sluggish on the court, I’ll get sleep and play better the next day. It’s never felt like a limiting factor. I almost feel proud in a sense.”
During a round of icebreakers on the first day of orientation at UVA, Roberts, with his characteristic smile, shared with everyone in his hall his passion for anime, or Japanese cartoons. Jesse Hernandez, one of Roberts’s former hallmates who ended up becoming a close friend, said, “That’s not something most college students would be so comfortable sharing with people they first met. But Roberts was not ashamed of it at all. He didn’t care.”
In their first year, Roberts and Hernandez would engage in intense Super Smash Bros, a popular video game, competitions until 4 am in the Balz Dobie residence. Since Roberts and Hernandez were evenly matched in terms of skill, there was a never-ending desire to play just one more game. They would yell and scream into the wee hours of the night even though they both had classes early the next morning.
What impressed Hernandez about Roberts was that unlike most, Roberts revealed his genuine personality rather than putting up walls when first meeting people. Hernandez explained, “From day one, I felt comfortable with Andrew. I love relaxing with him.” The pair would talk about anything from anime to girls to feeling fear of missing out. “He’s just a very goofy person,” Hernandez said.
With his Club Tennis friends, Roberts celebrated Halloween by dressing up as a sailor. “Everyone was being super goofy and letting loose, and Andrew was being a total doofus!” said Jonathan Mo, who has known Roberts since high school and is one of his closest friends on Club Tennis.
Fun is work, work is fun
When it came to tennis, Roberts was never able to keep himself away from his racquets. Coach Andy Hinkle, who coached Roberts for 19 years, said, “For some of the kids who excelled, you could see the stress in them. But with Andrew, you could tell it was fun. It was truly a pleasure for him.
The intensity of Roberts’s love for the sport was matched only by that of his training. At Princess Anne Country Club, Roberts practiced daily, and during the summer, the training increased to three hours every day.
Under Hinkle’s guidance, Roberts crafted the technical weapons that would enable him to become an aggressor on the court. One of their favorite drills to run was called “my forehand is better than yours,” in which Hinkle and Roberts would launch into a forehand battle, and the first person to miss would have to look his rival in the eye and admit, “your forehand is better than mine.”
A former All Armed Forces Champion, Hinkle was a tough opponent. But one day, he looked his fourteen-year-old protege in the eye and said those dreaded words: “Andrew, your forehand is better than mine.” “It was a bittersweet moment, because I’m as competitive as can be. But ultimately I was proud. Andrew was growing fast.” said Hinkle.
While Roberts spent hours each day swinging a racquet, his training was far from over when he stepped off the court. A big believer in cardio, to this day Roberts runs anywhere from five to eleven miles every couple of days, and he runs stairs every morning. His mile time? 5 minutes. While a typical athlete might take the rest of the day off after running a half marathon, Roberts would often choose to hit later that same day, sometimes engaging in intense two-hour matches. Why? He just loves hitting.
Surreal even for an athlete with no physical limitations, Roberts’s capacity for exercise seems to defy the disorder that threatened his life at birth. For Roberts, the limitations of cyclic neutropenia are not real—the only thing that is real is his love for the sport of tennis.
Hinkle believes that the key source of Roberts’s consistent drive is “a sense of perfectionism.” He theorizes that strong tennis players tend to be achievers in all things, including academics. It’s because the game demands the willingness to really dial into specific things with technique.
While Hinkle may be right, Roberts has a slightly different perspective: “I generally try not to stand out too much. Unless I’m playing tennis—then I try to stand out as much as possible.”
And stand out he does. In high school, Roberts and his doubles partner Conor Somers racked up over 60 wins in their three year career. How many total times did they lose? Only twice—and those losses did not sit well with a team so used to winning. “We were pissed but took it on the chin. It was always about how to bounce back,” Somers said.
Roberts and Somers in a doubles match for Cape Henry Collegiate
According to Somers, Roberts’s tennis skills and competitive intensity took off in high school. Roberts continued to hit his forehands at overhead speed but transformed his net game by stepping into volleys. He would make poaches and grew into a professional doubles partner. Of course, practice sessions would never be dull with Roberts, who would shout comments in Japanese, the language of anime.
Said Somers, “He was just that guy who at the bottom line always had a big smile on his face.”
Roberts with his high school tennis squad
Somers, who went on to play Division I tennis for Notre Dame, believed that Roberts was definitely good enough to play D1, but knew him to have always taken academics seriously. Indeed, Roberts graduated Cape Henry Collegiate Cum Laude with a 4.43 GPA, an achievement he credits to the support of his mother. While Roberts did not ultimately sign a Letter of Intent with any university, he matriculated to the University of Virginia as an Echols Scholar and quickly became the star player of their Club Tennis team, where his tennis game continued to thrive within a community of fellow tennis-enthusiasts.
Filled with love
When Roberts prepared to set foot at Mr. Jefferson’s University, he was excited for the freedom of independence. However, for his mother, worry could not be avoided.
In choosing to attend UVA, he said, “The location was also a big factor. My mom teased me and said she would give me space and wouldn’t stay in the same dorm…she would get one across the hall!”
Roberts’s friends have described his mother as being overly protective, joking that she seems to want to “put a chip in his neck.” But rather than brush her aside as would be common for a young man, Roberts calls his mom very regularly and always finds things to do in Virginia Beach over the summer so that he can be close to her.
Roberts said, “I understand why my mom worries, but I want her to worry less.”
According to his friend Jesse Hernandez, Roberts knows that his mother’s protectiveness is how she loves him, so he accommodates her quirks. “He really, really cares for his mom. It’s really touching,” Hernandez said.
In addition to Roberts’s mother, the other prominent caring adult in Roberts’s life is Coach Andy Hinkle. For Roberts, whose father had passed early, Hinkle has been “the closest thing to a father figure.” “Andrew is just such a good kid. I don’t have children of my own, and knowing what Andrew was going through, I couldn’t help but be a part of his life. At this point, he’s like family.” Hinkle said, tearing up.
Indeed, in Hinkle, Roberts has found far more than a tennis coach. After Roberts initiated Hinkle into the anime genre, the pair attended local anime conventions together, where they would cosplay, or dress up, as their favorite characters and hang out for the day. While Roberts taught Hinkle about anime, Hinkle shared with his protege his zeal for Star Wars. Over time, the duo saw all the Star Wars films together. “We would play tennis, go see movies, get food—it was incredible,” Roberts said.
Roberts and Hinkle win doubles tournament at Princess Anne Country Club
Whatever physical setbacks Roberts faced from cyclic neutropenia, they were more than offset by the love he received from the most important people in his life. He acknowledged, “Without the support of my mom, without the constant support of Coach Andy, I would not have achieved nearly as much as I have—in tennis or in life.”
Despite his mother’s constant watch and worry, Roberts has flourished at UVA. While pursuing an interdisciplinary major in Business, Law, and Public Policy, Roberts joined Club Tennis his first year. After developing a new forehand and changing racquets, he successfully challenged the incumbent number one player on the team, the former junior champion in the state of Virginia, to become the new top player. At first, Roberts felt awkward challenging the top player, but the older guys on the team encouraged him to move up the ladder in order to strengthen the team.
Becoming the number one player on UVA Club Tennis was certainly no easy feat. Its Men’s Varsity Team having won the 4 NCAA Championships in addition to 13 ACC Championships, Virginia boasts a surplus of highly skilled tennis players, even at the recreational level. Having played D1 tennis at Notre Dame, Somers said, “Club Tennis at UVA is extremely competitive; quite honestly, it’s on the same level as many D1 teams across the country.” Indeed, at the time Roberts joined the team, UVA Club Tennis held four consecutive Mid-Atlantic Championship titles.
Despite being at the top of the team, Roberts has never been selective about whom he hits with. His core hitting group ranges from longtime friend Jonathan Mo and fourth-year rival Will McDevitt to Miriam Moghtader and Jay Krueger, first-year arrivals to the team. Roberts has also been known to drop by at a moment’s notice for a two-hour mixed doubles match — after having run five miles earlier in the day. Always in search of a greater challenge, Roberts became a hitting partner for the Varsity Women’s Tennis squad.
Roberts’s crowning achievement was leading the club to win Mid-Atlantic Sectionals against Georgetown, UVA Club Tennis’ biggest rival, in his third year. According to Roberts, the opposing team was making wrong line calls against his fellow teammates and was cheering obnoxiously, something that stepped on his usually even-tempered nerves. “I usually don’t get too excited or frustrated, but I very much felt like something was on the line,” said Roberts.
Roberts responded the way he knows best: swinging as hard as he physically could in order to overpower his opponents. After winning in both his singles and mixed doubles matches, Roberts was dead tired. “I was literally ready to collapse on the court,” he said.
Roberts with mixed doubles partner Ingrid Benkovitz at Mid-Atlantic Sectionals
Lifted by Roberts’s two victories, Virginia defended its long-standing status as the Mid-Atlantic Champion against Georgetown. The UVA team went on to win the National Fall Invitational in Cary, NC two weeks later.
UVA Club Tennis wins Mid-Atlantic Championship
Club Tennis’s 2020 season was unfortunately cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t stop Roberts from continuing to train both on and off the court. To maintain his competitive sharpness, he plays matches against his top teammates. Jonathan Mo, one of the few players on the team to take a set from Roberts, commented that Roberts hits the ball very deep into the court to take time away from his opponents. Before striking the ball, Roberts holds his racquet silently still before fully mobilizing a powerful kinetic chain that, coupled with impeccable footwork, will hit his opponent off the court.
After ultimately losing to Roberts in three sets, Mo said, “Playing with Andrew makes you want to practice every single day. Because of the passion he brings to the game, everyone on Club has wanted to get better.”
While Roberts’s competition record and athletic prowess will be lauded by former teammates after he graduates from UVA, his enduring legacy will be his constant ability to have fun on the court and to make others laugh. In addition to his constant stream of jokes in the Club Tennis GroupMe, Roberts is known to pick up the phone and listen to his fellow teammates talk about life issues, even when he is busy. When Mo first joined Club Tennis and didn’t have people to hit with, Roberts’s friendly attitude and invitation to hit made him feel welcome.
“I’m here to make sure everyone’s laughing and having a good time, whether they’re laughing with me or at me,” Roberts said, smiling. Indeed, there have been no lack of quotable moments involving Roberts; his closest teammates will always remember his goofy Halloween costume, his unapologetic love of margaritas, and his prominent role at Club Tennis recruitment, where he welcomed new members onto the team
In his final year on the team, Roberts has been making an effort to get to know all the first and second years, ensuring that they have an older individual on the Club to turn to. He said, “At the end of the day, I want to help build the Club Tennis community and make it as fun for the new members as it has been for me.”
Making people smile
After graduating this May, Roberts will join a consulting firm in Virginia Beach. Ultimately, he plans to pursue an MBA or a law degree.
A family-and-friend-oriented young man, Roberts believes that success is not about pursuing the best job or money. His top three goals in life are to find a wife whom he loves, surround himself with people that he loves, and to retire on the beach or in Japan. But what he looks forward to most upon returning home is grabbing some cold ones with Coach Andy and enjoying the Virginia Beach boardwalk with his friend Conor Somers.
The passion at the core of Roberts’s being — for tennis, love, and laughter — has brought and will continue to bring joy and inspiration to those whom he encounters, both on and off the court.