Ball State Tennis: An Orlando Family Tradition

By Nathan Ganger / Ball State Sports Link

For the Orlando family, tennis is a way of life. Hard work and a positive attitude is mandatory. Waking up at 5:30 am to go to train at the tennis courts is a daily routine. Everyone wants to win, but not everyone is willing to do what it takes to get to the top.  

Winning comes pretty natural for the Orlando’s, and that all started with Gene Orlando. 

Gene Orlando grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents both worked, and his father was in the military. Neither parent played tennis growing up, so Gene Orlando was introduced to tennis in a different way. 

“I was dropped off at a friend’s house and they just happened to have a tennis lesson that day, so I followed them” Gene said. “I was outside at the fence, looking in and the instructor asked me if I wanted to join, and I said sure.” 

It was not too long after that when young Gene Orlando would fall in love with the game of tennis. 

Since that day, a seemingly random introduction to the sport of tennis, Gene couldn’t get enough. He played baseball throughout his life, but that wasn’t his true love. Tennis took over his life and he started skipping baseball practices and games to go play on the courts. 

“Obviously, that (skipping baseball practices) didn’t last long and I started sitting on the bench,” Orlando said. “I was committed to tennis and opportunities just kept coming for me.”

Entering high school, playing college tennis wasn’t something that was on Gene’s mind, nor was it something that he thought was genuinely possible. 

“At first, I was just excited to make the high school team,” Orlando stated. “I wasn’t thinking I’d be a college tennis player because I was pretty naïve. It was kinda like I never had a dream from the beginning that I want to be a college tennis player. I just wanted to be a high school tennis player, play for my team and feel like I’m somebody.”

As he continued to improve, Gene saw other high school tennis players advance to the college level and that was something he wanted to do himself. High school tennis in the Cincinnati area and the Ohio Valley are very competitive. 

Gene was one of the top players in the state, but was still being lightly recruited. Travel opportunities were limited, so Gene had to stay locally and play, which meant not many college coaches got to see him in action. 

Rusty Schubert, a former Ball State tennis player, suggested that Cardinals head coach Bill Richards should go take a look at young Gene Orlando. Coach Richards liked what he saw from Gene, while Gene became sold on Ball State. 

Gene loved everything about Ball State. 

“I loved competing and playing in the MAC ,” he said. “It just felt like home. It (Ball State) is one of those schools that you walk in there and you really feel comfortable. You can instantly feel the Cardinal pride.”  

Orlando committed to play college tennis for Coach Bill Richards and the Cardinals, and the beginning of a historic run was about to begin for Gene and Ball State tennis. 

When he arrived at Ball State in 1983, the Cardinals were on the verge of winning a championship. The year prior, Ball State came up just short of a championship.  

“I think they learned from that moment and when I came in, I was able to be a part of it and contribute,” Orlando said. “Coach Richards kept on continuing to get better recruits and pushing the guys that were already there and that’s when he really started it. He just continued to get quality players that wanted to work hard, had a chip on their shoulder with a lot to prove.” 

That attitude of having a collective chip on their shoulder took Ball State quite far and made them fearless on the court, no matter the opposition. 

“When we went to go play another team, especially in the Big Ten, you went in there with an attitude and when we were picking on Big Ten teams, it felt good,” he said. “We were just getting confidence from that and wanted to see what else we could do.” 

Gene was able to learn from the upperclassmen on the team, recruits began to develop, and the Cardinals took off.

Over the course of 1983-1987, the Cardinals and Gene Orlando won four straight Mid-American Conference championships. Orlando had a 29-0 MAC play record over four years and helped Ball State earn an 83-14 record over that time span. 

In 1987-88, Gene stayed with the Cardinals as a graduate assistant and helped the Cardinals to yet another MAC crown. However, after yet another successful season ending in triumph, Gene’s time with Ball State was over.

“My philosophy is I gave everything I had,” Orlando said. “Every practice I gave everything I had. I didn’t cut corners. I could compete at the highest level but I wasn’t consistent enough to get the results day in and day out. Sure I could pick off a player that is very, very good but I couldn’t maintain that level.” 

Then, coaching unexpectedly appeared in the picture for Orlando. 

“I didn’t go in thinking I would be a college coach,” he said. “You know when you go to college, you don’t really know what you’re gonna be when you grow up right? I thought I would just be a recreational leader back in Cincinnati and teach tennis at a public park.” 

Now in his 30th year as head coach at Michigan State University, Orlando says that what he loves about tennis has shifted from friends and travel to now having to win.

“It’s a job, a profession. It’s important to recruit the right players, be involved in the community and you have to win. That’s a priority. When you’re a player, you want to win and you work hard to win but when you’re a coach, it’s your job to win.” Gene said.  

That desire and relentless pursuit of winning has been passed down through generations of Orlando, and now it’s Vince Orlando’s turn to build his tennis legacy. 

Vince Orlando was born on March 27, 2001. Tennis definitely was in his genes. Vince was always around tennis and Michigan State players. The love of the game just came naturally.

“I’ve seen a lot of players go through Michigan State,” Vince said. “I’ve seen a lot of players succeed and also fall short of what their goals might’ve been. So I’ve learned how to act and how to be the best player you can possibly be.”

Having a former MAC champion and a tennis head coach as a father certainly had its advantages for Vince. Gene and Vince would train for hours after any Michigan State match or practice. The two would constantly train on the courts and Gene instilled in Vince an intense work ethic.  

 “We had to be at the courts by 6a.m., maybe 6:30 so I’d wake up to a knock on the door or maybe a shake of the bed at 5, 5:30 a.m. and we’d be out the door and at the courts at 6 o’clock.”

For some people, waking up that early on many mornings is not something they would want to do. Vince, however, absolutely loved it. 

“I’d go to bed early, sometimes with the racket by my bed and my clothes all laid out for the next morning. I just enjoyed spending that time with my dad and spending the time on the court with him because I know it’s such a privilege to have him in my life and as my coach.”  

Gene and Vince had lots of training sessions together. One thing they did differently though, was Vince not competing in tournaments until he was older. Both Vince and Gene explained that it’s easy to get burnt out if you play in a lot of tournaments, so not exposing him to competition kept Vince hungry.  

Vince started in tournaments around 16 years old, and once he was competing against others, the wins began to pile up. 

“He had two year to figure things out and to put himself in position to try to be a college player,” Gene said. “There’s obviously a lot of players that peak out and he was just getting started. New guy on the block. Who’s this guy? He knew where he had to go. He saw where the other guys were in the pecking order and he just kept on climbing.” 

When it came time for Vince Orlando to start looking at colleges, Marquette and Xavier showed interest, but it was Coach Richards and the chance to follow in his dad’s footsteps that won Vince over and helped him choose Ball State. 

“The fact that my dad played for Coach Richards is just a phenomenal story and Ball State was one of the few campuses I had been to,” Vince said. “Coach believed in me. He believed in me when I was a junior in high school.

“He took a chance on me. I wasn’t that great four or five-star recruit. I was on the bubble, but I have some upside.” 

Vince made a late jump in his high school career that earned him a scholarship to Ball State. 

“There was a time, not that long ago, when he probably didn’t fit our profile,” Richards said. “When I recruited him, I thought he’d be someone that could fight for a spot in the lineup and he’s set himself apart from several players and is clearly going to be a lineup player for us.” 

In his freshman season, Vince posted a 9-4 record including a five-match win streak from January 18-February 2, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the 2021 campaign, Orlando secured the win over Xavier by claiming the final set to give Ball State the win. He was 6-3 in singles before an injury in early March ended his season.

“I’ve seen so much improvement in his game and improvement usually isn’t gradual. It usually goes in the plateaus,” Richards said. “You make a jump and stay the same and then make another jump. He’s made continual steady progress and he still is.”

To the Orlando family, Ball State tennis means family. It’s a tradition passed down from one Orlando to the next.

Gene had his own story, winning four MAC championships and being named to the Ball State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1997.

Now it’s Vince’s turn to follow in his dad’s footsteps and to build his own legacy at Ball State. 

Author: Nathan Ganger